Why Michael Glover Smith’s “Relative” is One of the Year’s Best Films

I often refer to writer/director Michael Glover Smith’s 2015 debut feature “Cool Apocalypse” as the Windy City’s answer to “Manhattan,” albeit without the creep factor. There is a sequence in which a weary couple, long past the peak of their relationship, cruise down Lake Shore Drive to reflect on all the memories that the iconic Chicago highway evokes. The black and white photography melds beautifully with Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s classic tune named after the street, which fuses with the city’s skyline just as “Rhapsody in Blue” did with the Big Apple. Juxtaposed against this couple is a tale of budding romance between two starry-eyed souls who might as well be the older lovers at an earlier time in their lives. Late in the film, the uneasy tension between the foursome is broken by the young woman, who performs an impromptu number out of left field that is the very definition of beguiling.

In many ways, this wonderful and criminally under-seen gem served as the lyrical precursor to Smith’s fourth and finest film to date, “Relative,” which gathers his largest and most impeccably cast ensemble, while allowing each actor to have their moment to shine. In only her second screen role, Elizabeth Stam walks away with each of her scenes as Hekla, one of the most richly entertaining characters in recent memory. As she sets her sights on college graduate Benji (Cameron Scott Roberts), Hekla steers him back to the party his family had prepared for him, and he had planned on avoiding as long as possible. Like all of the people in a Smith film, Hekla transcends the tropes one would normally associate with her character, and that is in large part due to the brilliance of Stam’s performance. When she instinctively provides an amusing diversion to a family squabble by exuberantly enacting an excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Hekla is demonstrating the transformative power of words, whether original or recited, to cut through the white noise of angst that severs our ability to look one another in the eye.

Locked up tightly in a cocoon of self-loathing is Benji’s older brother, Rod (Keith D. Gallagher), who spends his days in the family basement, pining for his ex, Sarah (theatre vet Heather Chrisler, in a ferocious cameo), much to the chagrin of his parents, David (the ever-sublime Francis Guinan) and Karen (Wendy Robie, the invaluable screen icon best known to “Twin Peaks” fans as Nadine Hurley). Benji’s sister, Evonne (Clare Cooney), fears that her relationship with Lucia (Melissa DuPrey) is on the skids, while the family’s other sibling, Norma (Emily Lape), bookends the picture with lonesome car rides that suggest a great deal of turbulent nuance without ever spelling it out. Many of these actors are accomplished filmmakers in their own right—Lape’s feature, “Mercy’s Girl,” and Cooney’s short, “Runner,” are among my favorites in recent memory—and their command of visual storytelling is just as apparent when they are in front of the camera. Smith’s superb direction allows for numerous moments of wordless observation, such as ace cinematographer Olivia Aquilina’s elegant camera pan that surveys the family house during the stretch of an afternoon when it is unoccupied yet no less alive with feeling.

“Relative” is an utterly captivating ode to the spontaneity and resilience of human connection, not to mention how so much of life boils down to putting one foot in front of the other. A lesser film would’ve felt the need to raise the stakes by delving into obvious melodrama, whereas Smith opts for stepping up to the edge of the abyss without ever leaping into it, resulting in a series of interlocking seriocomic vignettes that feel much more truthful. As a lifelong admirer of “Twin Peaks,” Smith clearly understands the genius of Robie in how she brings a vulnerability and a depth of humanity to each of her roles, which is why Nadine—for all of her wild eccentricities—has become so beloved by the show’s fans. Here, Robie brings enormous warmth to her role of a mother whose guilt at transferring her innate struggles onto Evonne is at long last revealed in one of the film’s most touching scenes. None of these plot threads are neatly wrapped up at picture’s end, yet the characters have, in many cases, reached a greater understanding and appreciation of one another, and that in itself is enough to lift our spirits. If you happen to catch “Relative” at one of its four upcoming screenings this month in Chicago, you will have seen one of the year’s best films. Don’t miss it.

“Relative” screens at 7pm on Wednesday, June 8th, at the Music Box Theatre, with Heather Chrisler, Clare Cooney, Melissa DuPrey, Francis Guinan, Emily Lape, Cameron Scott Roberts, Wendy Robie, Michael Glover Smith, Gabriel Solis and Elizabeth Stam in attendance for a post-screening Q&A moderated by yours truly. 

It will subsequently screen at 7pm on Friday, June 10th; at 8:15pm on Wednesday, June 15th; and at 8:15pm on Thursday, June 16th, at the Gene Siskel Film Center with cast and crew Q&As scheduled after each showing.

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