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Categories: Movie Reviews

Francesca Amoroso reviews The Family I Had, the heartrending documentary that’s been causing a storm at film festivals on both sides of the Atlantic.

We meet Charity Bennett, an outwardly normal single mother, who cares for her family and leads a wholly middle-American life. However, we quickly learn that her story is far from the ordinary and reads more like the fictions of a Greek tragedy: plagued with hate, betrayal and multiple murders. Her story inspires two questions: How does a mother deal with the murder of her four-year-old daughter? And how can she forgive the perpetrator of that crime, when the killer is her own thirteen-year old son?

Filmmakers Katie Green and Caryle Rubin follow the history of Charity’s life, as she dealt with the aftermath of her daughter Ella’s death and the subsequent incarceration of her son, Paris. We witness the utter torment Charity faces as she recalls life before Ella’s death, the precious memories of her beautiful blonde girl, the light of her life violently snuffed out by the family member Ella loved most.

Charity weeps for her daughter and can never truly forgive Paris for his crime but in spite of all, the love she has for her son cannot be easily disregarded. Despite her recognition of how her relationship with Paris could feel like a betrayal to the memory of Ella, she refuses to abandon him completely. Paris is still her son and his childhood has been taken away from him, having to quickly adjust to a harsh life in the prison he has lived in since the age of 13 and will potentially live in until he is 53.

As we witness Charity’s life over a number of years, she attempts to vocalise her beliefs on why Paris committed this atrocity. The ostensibly random act of egregious violence is gradually revealed to have a somewhat cogent impetus; a troubled family with a complicated and far from stable history: Charity having struggled with heroin addiction, Paris’ father dealing with severe schizophrenia, Charity’s mother being accused and highly suspected of murder herself and a overall lack of consistent home life.

The family’s chequered past does not damper Charity’s undying love for her children, but its complexities and the unconventional relationships within the family make for a surprisingly contradictory and hard to navigate story. We feel at times both sympathetic and repulsed by the actions of those surrounding this traumatic event. Ella’s death has defined the lives of those who loved her and as they each attempt to find meaning in the aftermath, blame is an understandable source of closure for them all.

Even Paris, a thoroughly disturbing and hard-to-read young man, accepts his crime and admits whole-heartedly the weight and severity of what he did. At first we are simply horrified at the idea of him, seeing the tragedy through Charity’s eyes, but her defence of him, her constant worry over his life in prison and lack of mental health support serves to highlight the original impetus for the film.

Green and Rubin initially set out to document cases of extreme sentencing on youths in the U.S and the effect it has on their families, through this they met Charity and her story became one that deserved more attention. The reverberations of that initial incentive are felt here, Paris is clearly mentally ill, a man who is creative, likes to draw, openly admits that he has committed a horrific crime and tore his family apart in the process, yet has never been given even the slightest of psychological help.

It’s an emotionally complex and layered family history and Green, Rubin and their editor, Tina Grapenthin, have managed to skilfully document the contradicting loyalties and versions of events of every family member. Each survivor attempts to forgive one another and themselves within the new reality and revelations that Ella’s death inspired. Despite the horrors of this family, the atrocities they have committed and the intricacies of how we feel about these events and people, we are still left hoping that they heal and ultimately continue to survive in spite of all they have been through. The Family I Had is truly a compelling and heart-breaking story of testing the furthest limitations of familial love.


Francesca Amoroso

Francesca is currently a Camera Assistant, working and living in London. She is an MA Film Studies graduate from UCL and writes about film in her spare time.

Posted on Oct 3, 2017

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