Family dynamics are a principal food group of any balanced cinematic breakfast. Whether it’s space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) or soap opera (Terms of Endearment, the ties that bind—and just as often, fray—between mother and daughter, father and son, or siblings are the stuff of which both great comedy and great drama are made. Still, sometimes nothing beats nonfiction—the documentaries on this list feature family units and fragments the specifics of which most of us will recognize as strikingly different from our own. But the emotions? The needs met and unmet? Those are universal.
1. Stories We Tell (2013)
With Stories We Tell, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has proven herself a consummate filmmaker, transforming an incredible personal story into a playful and profound investigation into the nature of storytelling itself. The central mystery of her documentary—that the man she grew up believing to be her dad is not her biological father—is public knowledge and revealed in the film’s trailer. Yet Polley conceals and reveals information—starting with her relationships to her interview subjects—in such a way as to constantly surprise, even shock, her audience. The result is a film that entertains and delights viewers while elevating her investigation to art. —Annlee Ellingson
2. Gayby Baby (2015)
In the what seems like an eternal debate about same-sex marriages and the effect such unions have on the integrity of the family unit, especially the children—oh, the children!—what’s too often missing is any actual interaction, observation and discussion with actual children of such couples. This Australian doc by Maya Newell seeks to remedy that and at the same time provide an educational tool for those seeking to engage with the question in a non-politicized manner. —Michael Burgin
3. The Wolfpack (2015)
Imagine a small, dingy Manhattan apartment. Imagine you can’t leave, and imagine: The only contact you have with the outside world is through movies. Growing up like this, anyone could imagine that things could get pretty weird—and the Angulo family, a literal band of brothers raised in isolation by their paranoid parents, are indeed an interesting bunch. Their only outlet for creativity, undertaken as a way to basically stave off boredom, is to recreate their favorite films (like Reservoir Dogs, The Dark Knight and The Grand Budapest Hotel), crafting costumes out of cereal boxes, yoga mats and whatever other resources they can get their pale hands on. In The Wolfpack, director Crystal Moselle has nearly unlimited access to the Angulo brothers; at one point they inform her that she is the only person who has ever been invited over to their home, and is the only guest they’ve ever had. Sad and strange, funny and touching, powerful and unsettling, it is so wholly unusual, The Wolfpack may be like no truth you’ve ever seen before. —Brent McKnight
4. Rachel Is (2014)
In her documentary debut, Charlotte Glynn returns home to introduce the world to her sister, Rachel. Meeting Rachel will be the first experience of its kind for many of us, as Glynn’s younger sister represents members of our society whom many of us have simply chosen to ignore. She’s bold, she’s headstrong, and as a person living with developmental disabilities, her road to adulthood is different from what audiences usually see on screen. With Rachel Is, Glynn challenges certain pre-conceived notions (including her own), and makes the truly personal, public. Although the film is a bit unpolished—playing more like a collection of home videos than a documentary at times—the footage used tells a whole story, and the work is compelling.
Glynn’s documentary is an important and unique coming-of-age story, and sharing this production undoubtedly required great bravery on the part of the filmmaker and her family. Rachel Is ultimately triumphs, and by the conclusion we feel connected to all of the Glynn women—especially Rachel, whose openness, love, fear and fearlessness make her an incredible, whole, human being. The fact that we can empathize with Rachel (as well as with her mother and sister) proves that Rachel Is has the ability to impact and impress upon an audience in a unique and meaningful way. —Shannon Houston
5. Look at Us Now, Mother (2015)
The mother-daughter relationship can be one of the most emotionally fraught fault lines in a family’s oft-complicated dynamics. That is fully evident in Look at Us Now, Mother, Gayle Kirschenbaum’s examination of her relationship with her mother, Mildred Kirschenbaum. Looking back through video and other means to a childhood during which she was often the target of her mother’s acerbic tongue, the film explores an often complex relationship that, even taking into account the filmmaker’s biases, seems clearly detrimental to the younger Kirschenbaum’s esteem. If the film ended there—a sometimes searing portrayal of mother-daughter dysfunction—it would be an interesting, if depressing, ride, but fortunately Kirschenbaum’s film has a much wider scope, showing how their relationship has endured the often scarring battles of Gayle’s youth and moved beyond to what many families more easily obtain—love and acceptance. —Michael Burgin