I love movies about dysfunctional families, though I’m not entirely sure why — while my family has its moments, we’re really not all that dysfunctional. At least I don’t think we are. But what better time of year than the holidays to indulge in films about families who need magazine racks for their issues? (I totally stole that line from Janeane Garofalo.)
I think every family gets a little crazy during the holiday season. The (mostly) forced family interaction and all the pressure to have fun can make even the most fun-loving, well-adjusted person a sniveling mess of frustration and unmet expectations.
I first saw The Myth of Fingerprints (1997) not long after it was released on video. I sought it out because a) I was a big ER fan and loved Noah Wyle, b) I was a big Julianne Moore fan (still am), and c) a good friend of mine who knew about my penchant for dysfunctional-family films told me I needed to watch it after he saw it in the theater.
I anxiously awaited its video release and rented it the weekend after it came out. I was blown away.
Named after “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints,” a track on Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland, writer-directer Bart Freundlich’s feature-film debut tells the tale of an estranged, dysfunctional family reuniting for an uncomfortable and somewhat heartbreaking Thanksgiving.
Warren (Wyle), the family’s oldest son, returns to his parents’ (Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner) rural New England home for the first time in three years. In addition to seeing his family again, he’s reunited with his ex-girlfriend Daphne (Arija Bareikis), who, it seems, is the love of his life. At first we don’t know why Warren hasn’t been home in so long, but we soon learn about an incident with Daphne and his father that turned his world upside down and forced him to leave town.
The family’s oldest daughter, Mia (played by Moore, who met Freundlich on this film in ’96 — they got married in 2003 after having two children together), works at an art gallery in the city and is the most uptight of the bunch. She brings home her laid-back psychotherapist boyfriend, Elliot (Brian Kerwin), who seems to have more in common with the younger, more gregarious sister, Leigh (Laurel Holloman), than the cold, hostile Mia. It’s only after she reconnects with a childhood classmate (James LeGros) that Mia finally loosens up.
Jake (Michael Vartan), the younger son, seems to be the most “normal” and grounded person in the family, but he has his own issues, having spent most of his life competing with his siblings for attention. This could be part of the reason why he brings his girlfriend, the uninhibited Margaret (Hope Davis), home for Thanksgiving. He thinks he loves her, but he’s not sure, and he wonders if it’s necessary to have a normal family life in order to have a healthy relationship.
The siblings spend the entire holiday weekend trying to relate to each other and their parents, deal with their own personal issues, and come to terms with the fact that their father is slowly losing his grip on reality.
In the realm of films about dysfunctional families, The Myth of Fingerprints is quiet and understated, with exceptional performances. While I think some of the characters, like Leigh and Jake, could’ve been fleshed out a little more, Freundlich does a fine job with his first film, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and earned Scheider an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Male.
Fingerprints was also Noah Wyle’s first major film after he became a breakout star on NBC’s ER. (Not only does he star in it, he’s credited as an associate producer.) I remember reading a review when Fingerprints came out that questioned why he would choose to do a small indie film as his first movie after becoming a star on TV. If you ask me, I think he made the right decision, because he turns in a really great performance (though it can be said that Warren isn’t much different from Wyle’s ER character, John Carter, during his gloom-and-doom years).
The Fingerprints soundtrack fits perfectly with the film’s somber mood. The original score, composed by Australian musicians David Bridie and John Phillips, is absolutely gorgeous and a little depressing at the same time. The soundtrack album, which is out of print, also contains vocal tracks from Bridie and Phillips, including one from Bridie’s band, My Friend the Chocolate Cake.
Some of the soundtrack’s other standouts include two beautiful arrangements of a piece from the French opera Le Roi d’Ys (“The King of Ys”), one by Italian opera singer Beniamino Gigli and the other by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. The latter also teams up with Jon Brion and Ethan Johns to give us a lovely rendition of “On the Banks of the Wabash,” a song that Scheider’s character hums throughout the movie and eventually sings. We also get sprightly versions of two jazz standards by the Rozz Nash Sextet (one of which doesn’t appear on the soundtrack album and which I couldn’t find) and a couple of classic tracks from Bing Crosby (one of which isn’t on the album, but I’ve provided it below).
The Myth of Fingerprints soundtrack is one of those albums I always listen to around this time of year because it just feels so, well, fall to me. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’ve never seen the movie, I hope you’ll seek it out — even if you aren’t a dysfunctional-family movie junkie like myself.
David Bridie and John Phillips – I Like It Like This
Luna – Lost in Space
Beniamino Gigli – Vainement, Ma Bien-Aimée (from the opera Le Roi d’Ys)
Bing Crosby – Don’t Be That Way
My Friend the Chocolate Cake – Low
Bing Crosby – Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)
Rufus Wainwright – Vainement, Ma Bien-Aimée
Rozz Nash Sextet – Tenderly
Rufus Wainwright, Jon Brion, and Ethan Johns – On the Banks of the Wabash
Roy Scheider and Hope Davis – Hal Sings
Original score by David Bridie and John Phillips: