Family Squares (2022), by Stephanie Laing
Zoom meetings. During the ongoing pandemic, there is nothing that united people more than Zoom meetings — even if people united to complain about them. We all have been to an uncountable amount of Zoom meetings, so why would we choose to sit down and watch a movie that looks like a Zoom meeting? In the case of “Family Squares”, it’s because cinema can convey so much more emotion than even the most intense Zoom meeting could do — because cinema is always reinventing itself with the help of new technologies, while maintaining the irreplaceable human factor that has been keeping the industry in motion for over 125 years.
Gandma Mabel Worth (June Squibb) feels that she’s dying and asks to see her family. Every person lives in a different place, and time is against them, so travelling isn’t a choice. They reunite in a Zoom meeting and watch Grandma Mabel die peacefully. After that, they reunite again on Zoom to discuss the funeral and have a surprise: Grandma Mabel has recorded several videos with messages for the family, and in these videos she spills some secrets, like the fact that one of Diane’s (Margo Martindale) children is not a sibling. Now, the family has to deal not only with grief, but also with the revealed secrets.
The members of the Worth family are joined, in their calls, by Alex (Sam Richardson), director of the funeral home and also state attorney, and Judith (Ann Dowd), Grandma Mabel’s romantic partner in later years. There are scenes set outside of the Zoom squares, in the characters’ bedrooms or rooms, and also conversations on the phone, in group chats and on FaceTime.
The things that usually happen in Zoom meetings are there in the movie, to create this fun yet awkward familiar feeling: people talk while their microphones are muted, bad internet connections prevent proper communication, ring lights fall down and much more.
Themes related to the COVID-19 pandemic are also present in “Family Squares”. Bret (Timothy Simons) talks about how being quarantined affected his teenager daughter Cassie (Elsie Fisher). Katie (Casey Wilson) has to deal with her kids being at home 24/7 and having online classes. It’s made clear that the pandemic also helped set the family apart, but there was already distance and animosity between them before social distancing came.
“Family Squares” was filmed during lockdown in 2020 and it shows. It was clear that Bret and Cassie, father and daughter in the movie, were never in the same room, for instance. This, however, does not impact our enjoyment of the story. The film wasn’t supposed to be shot remotely, that’s why the original script had to undergo a rework, and many sequences were improvised. Each Zoom square then became a stage for each actor to showcase their talent, and they used their own clothes and accessories to dress as their characters, and also their own belongings to decorate the sets.
Editing is important in all movies, and it was even more important in “Family Squares” — and the editing process was also made remotely! Editor Joe Klotz was quarantined in Scotland, and had to connect with director Stephanie Laing whenever the time difference permitted. Joe’s job was “simply” taking footage from the 22 iPhones sent to the actors’ houses and rearranging the footage in Zoom squares for the final movie.
“Family Squares” has an all-star cast made up by TV veterans and indie film darlings, including Henry Winkler, Judy Greer and the aforementioned Squibb, Martindale, Fisher, Simons and Richardson. With so many characters and so many things going on in small screens, unfortunately there is a feeling that the characters are underdeveloped. But maybe this was on purpose: maybe their relationship with Grandma Mabel and with each other is more important than who they truly are. At the same time, this underdevelopment of characters helps the idea that no person can fit into a Zoom box, and that we’re much more than what we show when we attend Zoom meetings.
Stephanie Laing, who directed, co-wrote and co-produced “Family Squares”, took inspiration from her own life — the loss of her grandmother and mother — to make the film, that is only her second feature. A two-time Emmy winner, Laing has produced and directed episodes of the HBO show “Veep” — where she met Timothy Simons and Sam Richardson.
It was impossible for me to watch “Family Squares” and not think about a Brazilian movie made also through Zoom meetings: “Álbum em Família” (“Familiar Album”) was presented at the 2021 Gramado Film Festival and brought a group of actors together to interpret a play by famous playwright Nelson Rodrigues — all the discussions, rehearsals and scenes made on Zoom.
Not recommended for those suffering of Zoom fatigue, “Family Squares” brings together a spectacular cast to talk about things we all experience, like love, death, grief, technological difficulties and more. It’s a movie with a heart: something we are still desperately in need of in the current times.