Anyone who has dealt with the disease of addiction in their lives knows what an absolute nightmare it can be. Director Sonny Malhi’s second feature film, Family Blood, seeks to take its audience on a journey through that nightmare.
The film follows Ellie (Vinessa Shaw), a divorced mother of two who has recently regained custody of her teenage children and moved to a “sketchy” neighborhood. Ellie happens to be a recovering pill addict who regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings. One evening, a mysterious stranger, Christopher (James Ransone), an addict of a different sort, finds Ellie, high and barely conscious, in a park after a meeting and decides to assist her. After the interaction, Ellie begins to feel ill and notice changes in her appetite. Meanwhile, her children are fed up with both their mother’s apparent inability to remain sober and her new, twisted relationship with Christopher. Things come to a head when the children finally need to decide how to deal with their mother’s addiction once and for all.
Family Blood gets right to it and opens with a young girl frightfully searching her disheveled home for surviving family members while a mysterious person or entity hunts her down. The scene is suspenseful and sets up the viewer for an atmospheric thrill ride. Shockingly, Family Blood turns out to be a melodrama with gore. Sure, there is copious amounts of blood, but there is also the angsty teenage son, Kyle (Colin Ford), who acts out at school, broods in his room while listening to loud rap music, and draws disturbing pictures. Of course, Kyle begins dating Meegan (Ajiona Alexus), another angry teenager with delinquency issues whose mother died of an unnamed sickness, which is tearfully explained the second time the characters interact.
While it’s probably inevitable to go for the drama in a film about a mother in recovery and the effects her addiction has on her children, the after-school special type of teenagers, around whom most of the film is centered, are unnecessary and distracting. Addiction is a horrible, terrifying disease that is, unfortunately, not explored in much depth here. The cornerstones of what creates a film’s most basic addict character are all in place – Ellie has lost everything, she goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, she struggles to rebuild her family, but that’s about it. Instead of presenting the audience with a unique look into the life and mind of someone struggling with sobriety, a lot of time was spent focusing on mother-son arguments and unearned death scenes. For a film taking a bold stance and saying that addiction is itself a monstrous force and the horror is in the cycles it creates, there are no unique insights or thought-provoking ideas for the audience to grasp within this particular story. What’s more, the central thesis is so muddled by the useless drama that, by the end, it’s not altogether clear whose side Family Blood takes.
That’s not to say the story is bad, after all, there is a rather poignant metaphor to be found within Family Blood. The issue is that the film is just simply not as groundbreaking as it believes itself to be or, perhaps worse, as it ultimately could have been. If the film had been a bit more patient with its story, dug a little deeper, gone a bit further into Ellie’s psyche, explored the struggles of addiction beyond what the audience has seen on various episodes of Intervention, Family Blood could have been excellent. To its merit, the film is stylized, well-shot, and makes good use of music. It even (fleetingly) touches upon important ideas surrounding gentrification and race. The one glaring issue with the film is that the concept is gripping, yet underdeveloped and rushed.
In addition to its great style and imagery, the film also boasts a wonderful lead actress in Vinessa Shaw. While the film never explicitly seeks to judge Ellie for her struggles, Shaw portrays the weary mother with such vulnerability and heartfelt empathy that it would be nearly impossible to do so. In one particular scene, Ellie recounts how she came to be addicted to pills to her Narcotics Anonymous group. It’s a heartbreaking moment, highlighted by how Shaw manages to convey pure despair and guilt with merely her face and her voice. The audience remains on Ellie’s side throughout the film, even when she relapses, even when she develops an insatiable bloodlust, and this is in large part due to Shaw’s performance.
Family Blood takes the seeds of a great idea and plants them in the soil, but nothing fully blooms. However, while the film may not live up to its full potential, the end product is certainly worth a watch. The film takes a risk in making a monster of addiction, and while Family Blood may stumble a bit, it’s a commendable effort despite itself.