Skip to content

RELATIVE (2022) review

June 11, 2022


written by: Michael Glover Smith
produced by: Clare Cooney, Aaron Wertheimer, Brian Hieggelke & Jan Hieggelke
directed by: Michael Glover Smith
rated: not rated
runtime: 97 min.
U.S. release date: March 12, 2022 (Gasparilla International Film Festival, Tampa, Florida), June 8, 2022 (Music Box Theatre), June 10, 15 & 16, 2022 (Gene Siskel Film Center) 


For his fourth feature-length film, “Relative”, writer/director Michael Glover Smith hones in closely on one specific family in Chicago, on a specific weekend for a specific occasion. It’s a relatable look at a variety of personalities in that family which will find viewers connecting with certain characters in some way on a personal level or simply recognizing them as someone they know in their life. The four adult children that we get to know here seem uniquely different, but as the story unfolds we see some similarities that become apparent, (although maybe not to the siblings) and see how certain life experiences can form a shared and unexpected connection between family members. Like his previous films, Smith shows a wonderfully astute knack for providing an audience with a look at the varying stages of real relationships, in “Relative” it takes the form of the family dynamic.

It’s been a couple years since the members of the Frank family were all under the same roof, but that’s about to change as an upcoming three-day weekend gathering approaches. Married couple, Karen Frank (Wendy Robie) and David Frank (Francis Guinan) are awaiting the arrival of their two adult daughters, Evonne and Norma, for this occasion. He’s retired and she still works at her labor-of-love job as a librarian, where she displays the patience to walk patrons through the difference between an ebook and an audio book. They would be empty nesters in the Rogers Park neighborhood where they’ve resided for thirty years if not for their oops baby child, Benji (Cameron Scott Roberts) and their thirtysomething son, Rob (Keith D. Gallagher) who is perceivably wasting away on a diet of weed and video games in their basement. The entire family will soon be reunited for Benji’s college graduation celebration. It should be a fun and joyous occasion, but while that may be the intent, that’s not always what transpires when family comes together.

Before the film’s title appears on the screen, we are introduced to all the players in the story. In doing so, Smith spells nothing out for us, trusting we will read between the lines as we get an idea of the character dynamics here, picking up on body language and the things that go unsaid. Evonne (Clare Cooney) is in Madison, Wisconsin, where she lives with her wife Lucia (Melissa DuPrey), and it becomes clear their relationship is fractured, quite possibly by Evonne’s debilitating depression and suicidal ideations, yet their status is communicated by what is unspoken in their exchange. Maybe they are staying together to provide some stability for Evonne’s young daughter, Emma (Arielle Gonzalez) or it could possibly be that the relationship, despite its complications, is the one reliable thing the two have to hold on to. Eldest daughter Norma (Emily Lape) can be seen saying goodbye to her husband, Barney (Mike McNamara) in Bettendorf, Iowa, and is deep in thought as she begins her drive to Chicago. It makes one wonder what she’s leaving behind at home and what she’s preparing for upon arriving to her destination.




As Karen heads off to work, David tells her he loves her as he sits on the front porch. While acknowledging this, Karen pauses and continues down the front steps without reciprocating his expression of love. In this short amount of time we see a fluid confluence of contentment and an uncertainty from these characters, that effortlessly provides a natural realism. Have they been together long enough where certain expressions of love aren’t that necessary for Karen or is there something under the surface? Either way, it’s one of many subtle-yet-noticeable moments in “Relative” that caught my attention and never let it go.

Once everyone arrives at the Frank home, Smith manages to divvy up enough balanced time for each family member. Some of the best moments of the film wind up being the conversations each of the adult children have with their parents. David has a sit-down with Rod in the basement, gently trying to connect with his son – who’s been in a moody and depressed state since his breakup with his former love, Sarah (Heather Chrisler), with whom he shares a young son, Davey (Gabriel Solis) – and although he has no solutions for Rod, he listens and is present but that’s all he can offer at the moment. During a neighborhood potluck, Norma (who is probably the closest to her parents of the siblings) reflects on family memories and what she thought life would be like when she got older. Maybe there’s more going on there under the surface for Norma. In their response, Karen and David respond with a knowing and supportive kindness. Probably the best example of the availability and openness of the Frank parents takes place during the third act of Smith’s story, where after a revelation is announced we see Karen and Evonne have a touching heart-to-heart conversation. It’s a cathartic exchange for both of them, especially when Karen shares her a couple of her own revelations and winds up becoming a tender bonding experience with an ethereal touch (thanks to the great cinematography from Olivia Aquilina) that reinforces the power of vulnerability. It’s a sequence that reminds us that there is much more to our parents than what we know, what we grew up with, and how we can indeed find out more about them as whole people while they are still around. It’s during these moments that both the parents and the adult children are likely gleaning a greater appreciation for each other during this weekend and maybe realizing that everyone needs each other more than they thought.

The dynamic between the siblings is examined in various ways as well. Both Norma and Evonne have their own playful, caring, and chastising way of interacting with their brothers, all coming from a place of love. However the brothers, who are totally different from each other, are the two who butt heads in a great outdoor scene as Benji comes home from meeting Hekla and notices Rod smoking weed on the home’s front balcony. As Benji instigates an argument revolves around Rod’s current life impasse, Rod understandably gets defensive. Both of them are in the wrong and in the right, and ultimately it’s their own respective life experiences that prevent them from seeing where the other person is coming from. There’s no resolution, but at least the two air out how they feel, which is something that’s kind of rare amongst on-screen brothers.

Although everyone is under the same roof for Benji, he’s not as excited as the rest of his family to celebrate his graduation. This is something that’s accentuated when he meets aspiring actress Hekla (an infectious Elizabeth Stam) at a nearby bar. He remembers her from a geography class from a couple years back and let me tell you, if you can remember someone from a class you took that long ago, there’s something special about that person. Indeed, Hekla’s outgoing personality is an obvious standout. She’s far from shy, but also not overwhelming or overconfident. She’s just comfortable in her own skin, with a great sense of humor and a knack for inserting a disarming sarcasm in just the right place. Hekla definitely brings something out of Benji. He didn’t necessarily come across as shy before their encounter, but he certainly comes to life after meeting her. Such is the way of young love. What elevates Hekla to gold status is when she agrees to accompany Benji back to his home to the party that awaits for him. It’s not that she’s a buffer to Benji, but he just wants to spend as much time as possible with her. But the fact that she agrees to go along with him and meet his family for the first time, the day after their first time together speaks volumes. Once they arrive, Hekla warmly exchanges hugs with Aunt Stevie (Cheryl Hamada) and Uncle Joe (H.B. Ward) and confidently greets Benji’s siblings (even hilariously describing herself to Evonne as a “man-trap”) and you just know that she’s a keeper.



Ordinarily, a character like Hekla would probably be introduced early on in a film, acting as a gateway for the audience, but I appreciate what Smith does here by bringing her in at just about the 50-minute mark. We’ve already met the members of the Frank family since they are the characters the story revolves around, but Hekla nevertheless plays an important role in “Relative”, acting as a spark that livens up not just Benji, but the entire family, and that’s primarily thanks to the performance by Elizabeth Stam, who exudes a delightful presence in every frame. She is confidant in her own skin and in Hekla’s skin, from the time we meet her in the bar to the very last shot when she’s walking on a sidewalk all by herself. I’ll definitely be interested in to see what Stam does next.

On that note, while all the performances in “Relative” are great, it’s the women that run away with the film. That’s no surprise considering how Smith has a knack for writing and directing for women, something that’s obvious in his previous films. Veteran actress Robie (“Twin Peaks”, and “The People Under the Stairs”) conveys such a warm presence, one that navigates a balance between concern for her children and holding the family together while not being overbearing or passive-aggressive. Emily Lape’s Norma is kind of an intriguing enigma. While she is the one who effortlessly gets a long with all of her siblings (inheriting the caregiver role of her mother), Lape does an impressive job at communicating what is unspoken, without a care if the camera catches it or not (it does). Despite their character’s complicated status, DuPrey and Cooney exude such great chemistry together, conveying a lived-in relationship that turns out needed this weekend to re-evaluate where they stand with each other. DuPrey delivers some great moments of emotional nuance and welcome comic timing right when it’s needed. I’ve seen Cooney’s work before – in Smith’s “Rendezvous in Chicago” and the shorts she has starred in/directed – but it feels like this is her most vulnerable role to date. In any other film, Heather Chrisler’s Sarah would’ve been a one-note role, but between her acting and Smith’s writing, she winds up being quite an authentic and real presence in the film. Of course, much of the credit of this fantastic ensemble cast has to go to Cooney, who also serves as Casting Director here.

Smith is doing a lot of things really well with “Relative”. It’s a film that touches on relationships at various stages, not just looking at how people get together, but also the hows and whys of staying together or the complicated reasons they are either apart or on the verge of break-up. I particularly liked how we learn what brought Karen and David together and what is it about them as individuals that made their commitment over the years remain intact. They may not know all the answers, “Marriage is like anything else in life. You just keep on putting one foot in front of the other”, something David tells Benji when he asks his father how his parents made it work out all these years. They don’t have all the answers and they certainly have their worries and concerns, but both Karen and David know a thing or two about loyalty, patience, and kindness, which can often times usurp love in long-term relationships.

Time and time again, Smith is able to find the patience and respect to present complex characters with a comical, understanding and humane touch, and “Relative” is his best presentation of that gift. You will find people you recognize in this film, and maybe even have a greater compassion for them, and quite possibly yourself. So far, this is easily the one film this year that I want everyone I know to check out.


RATING: ***1/2




“Relative” is currently showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. I will be moderating a Q&A on June 15th with Smith in attendance and producers Aaron Milan Wertheimer and Brian and Jan Hieggelke of Chicago Film Project. Tickets can be purchased here.

You can also watch a discussion my colleague Ian Simmons and I have about “Relative” here. 


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: