Dysfunctional Family Movies

Unusual Movies about Dysfunctional Families

There are an awful lot of dysfunctional family movies, and in fact the dysfunctional family is almost a prerequisite of most unusual films. Quite often it is merely a sub-text or an explanation as to why a character is acting strange. In dysfunctional family movies, however, a screwed up family life plays a major part and is often the whole subject of the film. Sometimes a dysfunctional family consists of only two members, a man and his wife, in which case it's more of a "dysfunctional movie couple".

The Quiet Family

Dad loses his job in the city, so he buys an out of the way inn and employs his wife and kids as his staff. Their first customer commits suicide--not a good omen. Rather than spoil their reputation, they clean up, bury him out back. and go on about their business. Their next guests, a pair of young lovers, overdose, so they also get relegated to a spot in the garden. As you may have guessed, they get few repeat customers. Kind of a malevolent Korean version of Fawlty Towers, it is equally as funny. Excellent soundtrack. Written & directed by Kim Ji-Woon. 1996. 93 minutes. Korean w/subtitles.


Dysfunctional Family Movies - The Royal TenenbaumsThis excellent film was suggested by John Wells, who wrote the following, "It's a Norwegian film by Peter Naess. Starring Per Christian Ellefsen and Sven Nordin as Elling and Kjell Bjarne as the "dysfunctional movie couple" in question, the primary characters in the best selling novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen. Elling is a 40ish man who along with Kjell Bjarne lives in a mental institution. The police take Elling from his home after his mother dies, and it appears Elling lives quite a sheltered life. He tells tales of sexual escapades to the oafish Kjell Bjarne, who has never been with a woman and is obsessed with sex. After 2 years in the institution, the two have developed a friendship and the state decides they are ready to live on there own in an apartment. They are shipped out to the city where they are met by their case worker Frank. The two set up house, and before long their pregnant neighbor, Reidun, is added to their triangle. Elling would just as soon never leave the house, but Frank insists they develop a normal life. Anyway, a good film indeed, attested by the fact that I sat through the whole film in Norwegian (with English subtitles, I'm not a masochist) and was compelled and entertained from start to finish." Thanks John. 89 minutes. Rated R. 2001.

The Royal Tenenbaums

If you loved Rushmore and/or Bottle Rocket then you've probably already seen this The Royal Tenebaums from Wes Andersen. Gene Hackman is the ne'er do well Royal Tenenbauam, who fathered, but did not raise, three extraordinary children. Mrs. T (Anjelica Houston) kept her growing children in the limelight. They are now successful, if slightly neurotic, adults. Chas (Ben Stiller) has become a real estate mogul, Margot is a playwright (Gwyneth Paltrow). and the third (Luke Wilson) is a tennis pro. His brother, Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the script, is their childhood friend and is now a pop historian. This terrific cast is rounded out with Bill Murray as Margot's confused husband and Danny Glover as Mrs. Tenenbaum's fiancé.

Royal is feeling a bit paternal in his old age and decides that now might be a good time to have the love and affection of his family. This is a trifle inconvenient as they all have careers, and Mrs. T is about to get remarried. He decides to fake a fatal illness and manages to gather his nutty clan around his bedside for at least a few brief days. It's a great story and every bit as entertaining as Rushmore only with an ensemble cast that Andersen balances perfectly. Mr. Andersen went from independent director to mainstream director with just three excellent films, and it appears he brought his talent with him. 2 hours. Rated R.

Julien Donkey-Boy

It is readily apparent that Julien (Ewen Brenent) has a few serious problems, but he may not be the strangest character in his addled family. His dad (Werner Herzog) drinks cough syrup from a slipper and tries to get his wrestler brother to wear a dress for ten bucks. His sister (Chloe Sevigny) is a very pregnant ballerina who spends her time shopping for used baby clothes. Harmony Korine has surpassed his excellent film Gummo with this Dogma certified epic. We follow Julien as he mutters on street corners, takes out his false teeth, and raps with his handicapped friends. Aside from using Herzog in his cast, Korine has also taken a few directing cues from this master of absurd cinema. We think this one is brilliant, but we wouldn't be surprised if you disagree. Korine's real grandmother plays Herzog's mom, and if we're not mistaken, Julien Donkey-Boy was shot in Queens, NY. 1999. Rated R. 94 minutes.

Grey Gardens

A voyeuristic peek into the lives of two genuine American eccentrics; Edith Bouvier Beale and her 50 year old daughter Edie. The pair inhabit a decrepit mansion called Grey Gardens in the wealthy enclave of New York's Hamptons. They seldom go outdoors, they inhabit one or two rooms of Grey Gardens, cooking on a hotplate and singing off key show tunes. The house is shared with a herd of cats, an attic full of raccoons and their attendant fleas. Filmed by the Maysles brothers (David & Albert), who somehow gained the trust of these unusual members of Jackie Kennedy's family. She must have been pissed when this was released. A thousand thanks to Lorette Masa, who raved about this film and found us a copy. 1976. Unrated. 90 minutes.


Tobias' dad dies on his wedding night. The problem is he never told anyone he had a family. He leaves his new bride (the boss's daughter) in the city and heads home to the family farm. Dad is stretched out on the dining room table, his brother Rud is a bit strange, and the place is a mess. He finds a hooker on sabbatical to look after his brother. She is quite a woman and soon moves her brother in to round out the household. About this time, the new Mrs. Tobias shows up and finds her husband has not always been a dazzling urbanite. She dumps him, and Tobias forsakes the plastic life in the city for his brother and new lady love. Confused? Watching it won't clear things up much. Danish w/sub-titles. 90 minutes.

The Castle

The Kerrigan family is a strange bunch, and although they are far from dysfunctional, none of them are playing with a full deck. Perhaps it's the hazardous waste buried in their yard, or maybe it's the radar from the adjacent airport that makes them so dim. Things at chez Kerrigan are going along fine until the local council forecloses on the Kerrigan estate to make way for a new runway. Dad Kerrigan reckons a man's home is his inviolable castle and has no idea where they get off. A battle ensues. Ignore the happy ending and watch it for Aussie and anti-lawyer humor/humour. Directed by Rob Sitch, The Castle might be construed as an Australian version of The Stupids. 84 minutes.

Soft Fruit

Christina Andreef directs Soft Fruit, a complex story of a family of weight conscious sisters and their criminal little brother who all come home to watch mom die. Mom is obsessed with Jackie O., and her husband is a Russian émigré to Australia who shoots crows out the kitchen window. There are enough strong characters here to fill out three films, and this is one peach of a family. There's a great scene when the kids take mom to the beach and they all share her morphine on the drive home. Don't pass this by because you hate depressing movies. It's quite funny. Rated PG13. 90 minutes. Australian.

Henry Fool

Mr. Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) , is a literary didact who has just been released on pedophilia charges. He rents a basement apartment in the Queen's home of the Grim family. Mrs. Grim is a stay at home manic who is lorded over by her sexually active daughter (Parker Posey) and her garbage man son, Simon (James Urbaniek). Henry gives Simon a marble notebook and tells him to write down his thoughts. Meanwhile, Henry is down in the basement churning out his magnum opus, entitled Confessions of Henry Fool. In time, Simon's lunatic scribbling gains popularity, while Henry's genius goes unheralded. Their lives slowly change place with all the convolutions and weird imagery you'd expect from director Hal Hartley. If you are not a fan yet, this movie may do the trick. Check out Trust and Amateur too. 1998. Rated R. 3 hours. Thanks to Tucson and everyone who recommended this masterpiece.

Frogs for Snakes

Actors often say they would kill for a part, but these guys actually do. You need a scorecard to keep track of this character filled send up of the New York actor/gangster scene. If you enjoy the joke, you'll find this one entertaining. Directed by Amos Poe, and starring Barbara Hershey, Robbie Coltrane, Lisa Marie, and Clarence Williams the Third. 1999. Rated R. 92 minutes.


This movie got lots of praise when it first came out, but we chose to ignore it. Crumb is excellent though, and all those nice things and top ten listings were right on the money. Robert Crumb is a reclusive comic book artist who was seminal in the underground comic world of the 1960/70s. Even if the name is unfamiliar, you will recognize his work, or at least his distinctive pen and ink style. Terry Zwigoff directed and David Lynch produced this brutally honest documentary of Roberts twisted family and home life. You get a sense that Crumb's twisted artwork is really indicative of his world view. This is a very open and apparently accurate film that supports the connection between psychosis and genius. You may catch yourself rethinking this film for days afterward. 1994. Rated R. 119 minutes.

The Ice Storm

A dated tale of sexual awakening in the suburbs. A young Christina Ricci is daughter to Kevin Kline and they all live unhappily in New Canaan, CT. Everyone tries to get laid, but they all end up frustrated when the clock strikes twelve. The 1970's seem so silly now, especially the clothes.


Jeremy Irons takes some radical chances with his career. This is technically a much better film adaptation of Nabokov's diaries of Humbert Humbert, the pedophile professor, than the Stanley Kubrick version from 1962. It is also more disturbing. Melanie Griffith plays Lolita's hot mother much better than Shelly Winters, and you may wish she had a bigger part. Not for the sexually squeamish or anyone raising a teenage daughter. 1997. Unrated.

The General

Director John Boorman assembled a great cast for this true story of the Irish criminal nicknamed "The General'. Based on the book by Paul Williams, the movie begins at the end. There is little doubt going in that the main character will be dying in about two hours. With that out of the way, we watch young Martin (Played by Eammon Owens of Butcher Boy fame) rise through the junior criminal class in the Hollyfield slums. Pilfering his way into manhood, Martin takes up burglary, armed robbery and then eventually assembles a sizable army of henchpersons. With no allegiance to either the IRA or the Ulster Loyalists, Martin deftly plies his trade while harassing the Garda at every turn. It's all very amusing, and he does get killed in the end, because even in real life, crime does not pay. Take note of Martin's superb collection of pig t-shirts. Brendan Gleeson is Martin. John Voigt is his nemesis Inspector Kenny, and Maria Doyle Kelly and Angelene Bell are his common law wives. Van Morrison performs most of the music. Irish. 1998. Rated R. 124 minutes.

Strangers in the City

A dated tale of a Puerto Rican family that emigrates to Spanish Harlem. The macho guitar playing father tries to reign in his son and daughter in the dizzy tenement life of New York. Despite his efforts they fall prey to those two horrible fates, prostitution and "juvenile delinquency". Great fifties cars and street scenes. Directed by Frank Carrier. 1961. 80 minutes.

A Boy's Life

A biographical film from Tobias Wolff's book of the same title. Jack is dragged across the country by his loopy mom who is always trying to reshape her life. She latches onto Dwight (Robert DeNiro) as the perfect husband and father for her growing boy. Jack's mom has always been a poor judge of character, and this proves to be one of her larger mistakes. Dwight is the stepdad from hell. Aside from being a domineering asshole, Dwight is never wrong, never kind, and he steals the money from Jack's paper route. It's all the more tragic because you know it actually happened. Leonardo DiCaprio can almost be forgiven for Titanic after this excellent job as the young Mr. Wolff. Thanks to Jason Koenigsknecht for the recommendation.

The Apostle

The Apostle is the quintessential Robert Duvall film. He wrote it, directed it, produced it, and he stars in it. The apostle from the title is a sincere dedicated man of God who gets derailed when his wife (Farrah Fawcett) leaves him for youth minister of their temple. He skips town and lets God direct him to Bayou Boutte, LA via Trailways bus. Starting over, he touches many lives with his personal brand of religion. The cast includes June Carter Cash, Billy Bob Thornton, Todd Allen and lots of extraordinary talent. All aspiring actors/actresses should watch this to see how it's done. 1998. Rated PG 13.

Star Maps

Carlos comes back to LA, back to his crazy mother and his abusive pimp of a father with aspirations of making it in Hollywood. In the meantime he has to hustle his ass for dad spending long days selling maps of stars homes and himself on a Beverly Hills street corner. This movie blows Johns away, same setting, same line of work, but a much tighter story of the most screwed up family you'll ever hope to encounter. If you are interested, Carlos does get his shot at stardom, but I won't tell you the outcome. Director/writer Miguel Arteta. 1997. Rated R. 89 minutes.

Midaq Alley

A Mexican adaptation of the Naguib Mafouz novel, these are life stories of a group of tenants in a low rent building. Each story is simultaneous and loosely intertwined. The clock keeps resetting as we view a dominoes game from each character's perspective. There is something for everyone: drugs, sex (straight and kinky), love, passion, and betrayal. This is not a traditionally odd film, but it is good, and you might pass it by with that lousy title. In Spanish the film is called El Callejon de los Milagros. 101 minutes. Unrated. Subtitled.

Lawn Dogs

The people of Camelot Gardens housing estates truly enjoy the security and banality of life in an affluent synthetic community. Everyone that is, except ten year old Devon, who crosses the tracks while on a quest to sell her Girl Scout cookies. She meets up with her family's lawn cutter, Trent (Sam Rockwell) while knocking on trailer doors. Despite their differences in social standing, he carefully initiates Devon in the 3D life available outside the gates. There is nothing plausible about any of it, and the director John Duigan reminds you every 90 seconds of the social chasm between the characters. All rich people are boring social climbing dick heads, and the white trash lifestyle is honest and interesting and fatal. Nonetheless, Mischa Burton is great as Devon, and there are pockets of subtlety shining through Naomi Wallace's screenplay. 1997. Rated R. 100 minutes.

Nil By Mouth

This family has its share of heroin addicts, alcoholics, wife beaters and cigarette smokers. Written and direct by Gary Oldmam, this is a punch in the eye documentary-style film about a lower class urban British family. If English is not your primary language (or if you're an American), you may find the slang and accents a trifle unintelligible. The characters and the acting are first rate. In spite of their hardness, this is a tight family in a tough time and place. After Valerie (Kathy Burke) is beaten senseless by her loving husband Ray (Ray Winstone) her mother asks, "Val, do you still love him?" Charlie Creed -Miles gets an award for the best junkie, ever, with a hyphenated last name. Not recommended for children. 1998. Rated R. 128 minutes.

O Brother Where Art Thou?

This Coen Brothers' film is a George Clooney showcase that's also a 1930's update of The Odyssey. George is Ulysses (Everett McGill) a chain gang employee who has Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar ( Tim Blake Nelson) as his chain mates. They make a break for it, and the threesome hobble off through the countryside in search of Ulysses' hidden gold. Their first encounter is with a blind prophet who is slowly cranking a hand cart down the tracks. After the prophet foretells the rest of the film in a decidedly cryptic fashion, the boys amble into the swamps in search of freedom and a recording contract. The film is long on characters and short on story. It's also a perfect backdrop for Clooney's glib and handsome Ulysses. T. Bone Burnett assembled a kickass sound track that helps to solidly anchor the film in the Great Depression. John Goodman is the Cyclops, a one-eyed Bible salesman, and Holly Hunter is superb as Ulysses' very fertile wife. This will interest most classics majors,  Coen Brothers fans, and just about anyone stuck on an airplane for at least 103 minutes. PG13. 2001.

Spanking The Monkey

Poor Raymond just can't seem to lose his virginity. Not until his mother helps him out anyway. In fact Raymond just can't get much right since he came home from his freshman year at MIT. You really feel like stepping into this movie and giving him a hand. The acting and writing are great, and the story is timeless, although Raymond does not gouge out his eyes when he wakes up next to mom. Good stuff. Directed by David O. Rusell. 1994. 106 minutes.

Freeze Die Come To Life

This Russian coming of age movie shares very little with its American counterparts. Filmed in eastern Siberia, a young boy leads a harsh existence among the thieving brutal alcoholic adults that cheer up his day. Filmed at the tail end of the Communist era, it shows Russian life as it may still be today. Filmed in black & white, it helps emphasize the gloominess of the countryside. Amidst the kicks and punches, our young hero manages to keep you amused. 105 minutes. B&W. 1989. Unrated.

Track 29

If you're a Gary Oldman fan, you may want to hunt for a copy of Track 29. Theresa Russel is a psychotic housewife married to an obsessed model railroader, Dr. Henry Henry (Christopher Lloyd). Martin (Gary Oldman) appears as her now grown son whom she put up for adoption at age fifteen. Martin has a rather obvious sexual attraction to his long lost mother, while Dr. Henry carries on a latex gloved affair with Nurse Stein (Sandra Bernhard). You'll have to sort out if and when Martin is real or a hallucination, which is not readily apparent. 1989.

Welcome to The Dollhouse

If you have forgotten how much being thirteen sucks, get a copy of this film. It will give you renewed sympathies for the adolescents around you. Ola Lundin makes a good point when he wrote that Dawn (Heather Mattarazzo) did not need glasses to emphasize her nerdiness. Being from Sweden, however, Ola, you'll have to visit New Jersey before you can appreciate some of the subtler suburban humor. I liked My Life As A Dog better. Directed by Todd Solondz. 1996. 90 minutes. Rated R.

House of Yes

Parker Posey and Josh Hamilton play scandalous twins who have an ongoing incestual affair. What makes it kinky is her Jacky O. pill box hat and outfit. Tori Spelling gives the performance of her career as the girlfriend who comes home for the weekend. Adapted from the Wendy Macleod play, I'm glad I didn't pay $75 to see this one on Broadway. Freddy Prinze, Jr. plays the little brother in this charming family. Recommended by Lisa J. Schultz. 89 minutes. Rated R.

Bitter Moon

Roman Polanski really knows how to make a degenerate movie. If you think Hugh Grant is a twit, wait till you see him in this one. Grant is seduced away from his wife by a French siren (Emmanuelle Seigner) and her paraplegic husband. You might find this in the "Adult" section of your video store. 1992. 140 minutes. Rated R.

The Ruling Class

You always knew they were balmy. Peter O'Toole scours the British upper class in this farcical story of a lord who thinks he is THE Lord. If Shakespeare hadn't died, he could have written this screenplay. It's a little long, and The Ruling Class may not hold your interest unless its a really rainy day. This was a recommendation by Rebecca Crowley, who also liked White Mischief. Thanks Rebecca. 1972. Rated PG. 154 minutes.

Lone Star

Actually, this is a murder mystery and a good one at that. However, if you pay attention to the last scene, you'll find it may really have been about a rather unexpected extended family. John Sayles made this, but you already knew that. 1996. 135 minutes. Rated R.

My Own Private Idaho

From the makers of Drugstore Cowboy, (Gus Van Sant) My Own Private Idaho is the tale of two street hustlers from two distinctly different families. River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves dominate this smarmy tale of the extended family of kids on the street. Who is this guy Flea that plays himself? 1991. 100 minutes. Rated R.

Sante Sangre

Mom is an actress with no arms, so her son stands behind her and gesticulates as she performs. If I remember correctly, it was Dad who chopped them off. From the man who gave us El Topo, Al Jedorowsky. 1989. 120 minutes. Look for the NC17 cut.


Or more precisely Karakter in its original Dutch, this is a tale of an illegitimate son raised by his indigent mother. That would have been fine, but their paths constantly pass with the boy's wealthy and nasty father. Be forewarned, the high quality of the shadowy photography and the weird sound of the gargling Dutch may work their way into your dreams. The boy, Kazadreufe, is haunted, sued and harassed by the evil Drevenhaven, who is trying to harden his son to the world. Undoubtedly better on the big screen, you may be lucky enough to find a single copy in your video store. 1997. 125 minutes. Rated R. Dutch with English subtitles.

London Kills Me

This may well be the English version of My Own Private Idaho. A street drug hustler, Clint, needs a new pair of shoes so he can get a good job and give up working for his friend Muff Diver. This might be Hanif Kureishi's first film. Check out My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid too. 1991. 106 minutes. Rated R. English.

Muriel's Wedding

You really don't have to feel sorry for Muriel even though you feel compelled to; she'll be all right if she can just get past all that bad music she keeps humming. Australian director/writer P.J.Hogan made this simple story into a twisted affair by sheer talent. 1994. Rated R. 100 minutes.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Johnny Depp is Gilbert, who desperately needs to get out of this small town so he can grow up. So what if Leonardo DiCaprio plays his retarded brother, it's still a really well made depressing movie that starts and ends nowhere. 1993. Rated PG-13. 120 minutes.

The Nasty Girl

This is a well told story of a high school girl in Germany who starts out writing an essay on her town during the war. She uncovers a few thing that make most everyone squeamish. 1990. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes. Subtitled/German.

King of the Hill

A kid is virtually abandoned by his tubercular mother and his hustling father in a Depression era mid west hotel. Left to his own resources and the few folks who help him out, this amazing young man manages to hang on. Spalding Gray plays a believable creepy washed up neighbor. Outstanding and just weird enough to be captivating. 1993. 110 minuets. Rated PG-13.


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