“You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family!”

As sayings go, it’s one my mother has always been fond of quoting, normally when an aunt or a cousin does something particularly sociopathic.

It’s also a painful, unspoken truth that lies at the heart of artist and filmmaker Karen Guthrie’s The Closer We Get, a documentary portrait of her family that begins almost as a study of Guthrie’s mother Ann’s experience of stroke and how it affects the family before twisting away into less familiar territory, becoming an investigation of the paradox that is her glibly charming father Ian.

When a massive stroke leaves Ann paralysed and wheelchair-bound, her artist daughter Karen returns to her childhood hometown Largs to care for her mother only to find that her father, Ian, who years before walked out on his wife, has moved back into the family home and has appointed himself primary caregiver to his estranged former spouse.

Stubborn, pig-headed and insensitive, Ian is an infuriating and fascinating character as capable of great acts of kindness as he is thoughtless selfishness and Guthrie’s film peels back the layers of his relationships with her, his ex-wife and the rest of the family over 40 years that saw him raise a family with Ann before abandoning the safety of the comfortable middle class life he’d built for a middle aged adventure as an engineer working in the Horn of Africa and fathering a mixed race son, Campbell, whose existence he kept secret from his Scottish family for five years before nonchalantly introducing him by rather insensitively bringing the boy home with him on holiday.

Genial and funny, Ian is an impulsive, self-entitled whirlwind, wreaking quiet havoc on his family, completely unaware of the emotional devastation he leaves in his wake, his true intentions ultimately unknowable even to him and Guthrie’s film, while obviously an act of catharsis for the director and the family, never judges him but also never quite gets to the bottom of what makes him tick. Now in her 40s and a successful artist and film director, Guthrie is still the little girl wondering if her father will be coming home. But can a child ever truly know their parent?

Unfolding more like a detective mystery as Guthrie digs ever deeper into her parents relationship and reminiscent of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, The Closer We Get is a quietly shattering, ultimately hopeful portrait of redemptive love.

Movie Review: The Closer We Get
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