‘Relative’: Three eventful days shake up a Chicago family in well-written, witty drama

Brilliant actors play characters so intriguing, they all deserve movies of their own.

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When Karen (Wendy Robie, left) and David (Francis Guinan) host a graduation party for son Benji (Cameron Scott Roberts, right), he brings Hekla (Elizabeth Stam), a woman he just met, as his date in “Relative.”

Newcity/Chicago Film Project

Some movies just have that instant and intangible but undeniable “lived-in” feeling. It’s as if we’re parachuting in on the lives of the main characters — lives that existed before we had the privilege of checking in on these people, lives that will extend far beyond the brief amount of time we share with them.

“Relative” is just such a film.

Filmed primarily in the Rogers Park neighborhood and featuring a brilliant and eclectic cast of talented veterans and relative newcomers, this is a wickedly funny, occasionally poignant and authentic-to-its-core drama/comedy about three eventful days in the life of a totally relatable extended family, and when I say “relatable,” I mean, who DOESN’T come from a uniquely colorful bunch where there’s an almost equal equation of love and dysfunction branching through the family tree?



Newcity/Chicago Film Project presents a film written and directed by Michael Glover Smith. No MPAA rating. Running time: 97 minutes. Screens Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre and June 10-16 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Much of “Relative” takes place in and around the slate-gray Victorian home where Karen and David Frank (“Twin Peaks” and “People Under the Stairs” legend Wendy Robie and Steppenwolf Theatre Company icon Francis Guinan, respectively) have lived for some 30 years, raising four children and maintaining their progressive activism to this day. The upbeat Karen works at a local library, while crusty ol’ David putters around the house in his gut-hugging flannel shirts and baggy jeans, making breakfast and reading on the porch. (This is a man who probably never cared about his appearance. He’s supremely comfortable in his own clothes and his own skin.)

Two of the grown children still live at home: Benji (Cameron Scott Roberts) is about to graduate from college and become a “digital cartographer” for Google Maps, while Rod (Keith D. Gallagher) is an Iraq war veteran and divorced dad who spends nearly every waking moment in the basement, either playing video games or obsessing over his ex-wife Sarah (Heather Chrisler), who works as a webcam model of sorts.

Returning home for Benji’s graduation are sisters Evonne (Clare Cooney) and Norma (Emily Lape). Evonne is bringing her girlfriend Lucia (Melissa DuPrey) and their daughter Emma (Arielle Gonzalez), while Norma is here solo without her family, and let’s just say both sisters are experiencing some emotional speed bumps in their respective lives and relationships.

The ensemble includes a number of other key characters, including the free-spirited Hekla (Elizabeth Stam), an actress who meets Benji at the Hopleaf Bar and agrees to be his date for his graduation party at the house, knowing it will probably be weird and awkward and great fun, and she’s not wrong.

The gifted writer-director Michael Glover Smith (“Mercury in Retrograde,” “Rendezvous in Chicago”) continues to grow as a filmmaker, as he expertly moves around the pieces on the chessboard over the course of a story told over three days and filled with potentially life-changing confrontations, revelations and realizations. (“Maybe if I didn’t always ignore the shortcomings of our children, things would have worked out better for them, they might have turned out better,” laments David, to which Karen replies, “My God, David, are they really that bad? I mean, it’s not like any of them became Republicans.” David: “Well, Rod is a Libertarian, and that’s worse.”)

I hesitate to single out individual cast members because each character is so well-written, and each performance is outstanding. I’d watch an entire film or series that was just about Karen and David, or Evonne and Lucia and Emma, or Benji, or Rod, or Hekla …

Having them all together under one roof, even when the roof might shake a little from all the conflict and drama, is simply fantastic.

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