There can be a fine line between unvarnished realism and crude amateurishness, between a film that evokes the messiness and mundanity of everyday life and one that feels like a home movie. With Flesh and Blood, writer-director Mark Webber, who also stars as a version of himself, doesn’t so much walk that line as wholeheartedly embrace it. Enlisting his real-life mother, Cheri Honkala—a community activist who was the Green Party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee—and half-brother, Guillermo Santos, to play themselves, Webber mines his impoverished upbringing and complex family dynamics for a scruffy but deeply felt portrait of lives on society’s fringes.
After he’s released from prison, Mark moves into his mother’s house, attempting to keep his nose clean while bonding with Guillermo and working through the undigested trauma of his family’s past. The prison stint is fictional, a narrative contrivance that sometimes threatens to box Webber into a Sundance-friendly dramatic formula of societal reintegration, but it turns out to provide the film with only a loose organizing structure. Webber is more interested in the complex emotional undertow of his family as revealed in the way they perform their own lives on screen. Hewing so closely to the reality of Cheri and Guillermo’s lives lends a poignant authenticity to scenes like those in which Guillermo first meets his addict father (Guillermo Santos Sr.) and Cheri matter-of-factly recites the details of her traumatic childhood.
Mark Webber’s stripped-down approach renders the messy, unglamorous lives at the film’s center with dignity.
Such verisimilitude is enhanced by the film’s (literally) lived-in milieu, namely the shabby interior of Cheri’s actual Philadelphia home, cluttered with the detritus of contemporary life (empty bottles, stacks of papers, old printers), the sorts of humdrum details that are typically omitted from the carefully art-directed mise-en-scène of most cinematic depictions of the working class. Meanwhile, Webber’s plain-spoken depiction of his family members’ quirks, from Cheri’s quixotic political ambitions to Guillermo’s social awkwardness, allow these individuals to emerge as rounded, compelling, even lovable. But Cheri and Guillermo end up overshadowing Mark, who remains something of a blank slate throughout the film. Webber, one of the few professional actors in the production, gives a committed, naturalistic performance, but his screenplay muddles the character by refusing to clearly explain the reasons for his incarceration or the exact nature of his addiction.
When Mark is seen outside the context of his family, reconnecting with old friends and a past love (Madeline Brewer), Flesh and Blood can seem rudderless and half-formed. In part, that’s a product of Webber’s admirable unwillingness to impose an artificial dramatic structure onto this material. Instead, the filmmaker prefers small, slice-of-life vignettes that lack any real forward momentum but which ultimately accumulate into a nuanced, if fragmented, portrait of a singular family. Even when the film proffers a relatively conventional emotional climax in which Mark is reunited with his estranged father (Marc Webber Sr.), Webber resists easy catharsis, taking time to observe the two men’s sputtering false starts and conversational tangents before they achieve a muted but resonant reconciliation.
Flesh and Blood‘s spartan visual style often recalls the work of mumblecore directors like Lynn Shelton and Mark and Jay Duplass at their plainest, evincing little interest in pictorial beauty for its own sake. Rather than aestheticizing his family’s story, Webber attempts only to capture it simply an honestly, with a minimum of artifice. The director’s style may be all prose, no poetry, but his stripped-down approach nevertheless renders these messy, unglamorous lives with an abiding sense of dignity.