Writer/Director Michael Glover Smith of “Relative.”

Chicago filmmaker Michael Glover Smith, (awarded the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Star Filmmaker Award in 2017), has written and directed four feature films since 2015. The newest film, “Relative,” was screened at Wrigleyville’s new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on May 22nd for what may be the last time. However, negotiations are underway for a streaming deal that could take place as soon as this summer.

The film will be a good one for serious film buffs to stream. It is well-acted, thoughtful and the music (Cait Rappel) and editing (Eric Marsh) add to the overall excellent product. The cinematographer was Olivia Aqualina.

I drove out to a local college where Smith teaches film history and aesthetics when his last film, “Mercury in Retrograde” screened. It, too, was very good. Way back in 2022 I promised to try to attend a screening of “Relative” before it ended its run. Ill health and treatments for same delayed that trip until Monday night.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film, not only because Smith is a talented writer/director who knows how to put a film together, but because the characters were much more relatable, to me, than the majority of films dealing with millennials and Generation X that I recently took in at SXSW. Sure, the obligatory same sex relationship was included (de rigeur these days) and there aren’t a lot of plot twists and surprises, but the cast is beyond excellent and, as another famous filmmaker once said, “The cast is everything. You get that right, and your film will be successful.”

Writer/Director Smith told the audience in the Q&A following the film, “I wanted to stretch myself as a writer in depicting a family. I wanted to depict older characters. My first three scripts were about younger people.”

He went on to say that this was the largest cast he had assembled, his biggest ensemble. “To me, the cast was everything. They had that chemistry. They found it instantly. It was the best experience I’ve ever had.” The film was also well-received during its run and, on its opening night, was the 23rd highest-grossing film nationwide.

When asked about preparation amongst the cast for the film, zoom calls between characters were mentioned, and Clare Cooney said, “I’m allergic to preparation.” The consensus seemed to be that if you do something too many times, spontaneity goes away.

As far as instructing his actors, Smith said, “I really like giving the actors a whole lot of freedom.” This echoes directors such as Brian DePalma, who told RogerEbert.com’s Matt Seitz, “But you have to be very patient and loving with your actors, because they’re putting everything on the line, and you have to try to get everything out of the way to not hurt their performances or distract them.”


Clare Cooney in Chicago on May 22, 2023.


The cast that Smith assembled was, indeed, very, very good. “Twin Peaks” alumnus Wendy Robie (who played Nadine Hurley, eye-patch and all) portrays sixty-something matriarch Karen Frank, and Steppenwolf theater actor Francis Guinan plays her husband, David Frank. They are the parents to four offspring, who are gathering to celebrate the graduation of the tag-along child, Benjy (Cameron Scott Roberts of “The Walking Dead,” “Chicago Fire,” and “Ben Is Back.”) Benji—the “happy accident”—was eight when his older siblings were all away at college. In my own nuclear family unit, my son was a freshman in college when his sister was born, 19 years later.  I can relate to the “surprise” element of family formation. (Our family motto: “Every 20 years, whether you need to or not.”)

The Franks’ oldest son Rod (Keith D. Gallagher) is an unemployed 34-year-old who moved into his parents’ basement after his wife Sarah (Heather Chrisler), a webcam performer at a sex site, divorced him and took custody of their young son. Rod is also a veteran who suffers from PTSD, although younger brother Benjy doubts that Rod’s psychic pain is for real. Rod shares with Benjy that having his father refer to him as “a fungus” at one point is very demoralizing; the father/son bond certainly seems strained to the point of incivility—especially when it comes out during the gathering that the parents might sell the house, which makes Rod wonder, “What about me?”

Tensions mount at the graduation party for Benji, which only amplifies Rod’s feelings of failure and David’s resentment of him for living in his parents’ basement and delaying their mother’s retirement.

Daughter Evonne (Clare Cooney) comes into town from Madison, Wisconsin with her girlfriend Lucia (Melissa DuPrey), a Black woman, and their mixed-race daughter Emma (Arielle Gonzalez). Clare Cooney, who portrays Evonne, flew in all the way from Cannes to join the other 7 cast members, where she was participating in the Cannes Film Festival.  I only hope that Cooney’s excellent short “Runner” was part of that Cannes’ offerings. It was one of the most impressive shorts at the Windy City Film Festival in Chicago the year my own script was in a different category. Clare Cooney—who both acts, writes, directs, and, in this case, produces and casts—is a very talented filmmaker.

Another sister, Norma (Emily Lape), has driven in from Bettendorf, Iowa (where I had a business from 1985 to 2003). Smith told us during the Q&A that Norma represents the “normal” family member, hence her name. Norma talks openly to her parents about her perception that the family is disintegrating. The line that applies here is William Butler Yeats’ “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Or, as Smith has re-phrased that, “The more things change, the more they stay the same. Only, they don’t.“ (“I used to think that things would always be like that.”)

All of the film’s actors are terrific. The characters, as written, are multi-faceted and complex. For a film fan older than 30, it was nice to see Mom and Dad portrayed so well and to see the interactions of the four siblings. Writer/Director Smith shared that he considered Benjy, who is graduating and going on to a career as a cartographer for Google, to be “a selfish little prick.” I thought Benjy was rather harsh in his early judgment of his older brother, Rod, and certainly his desire to pick up a cute blonde girl from Iceland  (rather than attend his own graduation celebration) was selfish. But Benjy seemed as though he might join Norma in the “normal” category with the passing of time.

The film had many worthwhile observations:  the sadness of the “empty nest;” it’s hard to go home/ it’s hard to leave home,” nothing stays the same; death, as a sub-text. Mom Karen’s explanation of why she married David, rather than another suitor, was spot-on (says the woman married 55 years).  Karen explains that fierce loyalty beats all hell out of madly in love. Karen, the matriarch, talks about marital success as “just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” These observations spoke to me, because I’m not a Millennial. I’ve lived those truths. I enjoyed having an “adult film” that showed thought and did so with wit, as when the couple talks about their now adult children and comments that they haven’t done such a bad job. (“At least none of them became a Republican.”)


So, yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  I would have found my way to the director and told him so, personally, but my 4-hour parking garage time stamp was about to run out and I was looking at a $19 surcharge if I ran over. When you drive 3 and ½ hours (from the Quad Cities) and wait for 2 years (through some ill health) to make it to (potentially) the film’s last theatrical showing out of 45, you want to provide feedback that shows that you, too, are pondering all the ideas that have been so well depicted. And if this means displaying your own ignorance, so be it. [After all, I’ve only been at  reviewing for 53 years, so don’t pay my very minor criticism any attention.]

At one point, the character known as Hekla (which means volcano in Icelandic) is asked to insert a monologue from “The Importance of Being Earnest.” She does so. Why? I’m sure there was a reason for including this, but, to me, it just looked like padding. I didn’t “get” its significance. I would have asked about this from the audience after the showing, but the actress who portrayed Hekla was going on about her delivery (“I was scared about that monologue”) and time ran out. Plus, I had to finish my $9 Diet Coke and settle the Alamo Drafthouse bill.

The other point—-coming from a woman who has been reviewing film since 1970—(author of “It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now”) is this: I take issue with Writer/Director Smith’s statement regarding characterization versus plot. His exact words: “As a filmmaker, I’m all about character. I don’t give a f*** about story.”

I may be all wrong about this  (feel free to disagree), but I have written and published extensively, and I know how difficult writing is. I definitely agree that characterization is very, very important, but so is something happening (i.e., plot). I think the people who mentioned that they expected Norma to have a car accident on her way home were just waiting for that “something” to happen. If all films eliminate the “something happening,” fickle and disappointed filmgoers will leave the theater griping that “nothing happened.” (Please do not throw brickbats at the messenger who has articulated what other filmgoers told the director in previous Q&As).

I agree that a lot is shown happening as a “lead-up” to something climactic. Call me silly, but I expected that to be the matriarch (Wendy Robie) telling the kids that either she or her spouse had cancer and only “x” months to live. {That is probably because I now know how much drama that particular pronouncement will provide, having lived that particular story line since Pearl Harbor Day, 2021.} (*Note to self: Never have a mammogram on Pearl Harbor Day!)

If the “C” word wasn’t going to be the coup de grace for the film’s dramatic moment, what else might have sufficed?  There are other menu options: given the recent tenor of the times, we could have a “Crying Game” transgender surprise involving the young couple (Benjy and Hekla). Too bold? We could find out that Dad David and Mom Karen are not on the same page about selling the house (which seemed to be the case). Something more dramatic could have been portrayed at the party between the lesbian couple who are contemplating breaking up. They seem preternaturally calm about it all.  There are any number of dramatic possibilities; none were selected. The porch scene with the cigarillos might as well have been the “finale,” then, if Norma was just going to drive back to Bettendorf to continue being norma(l).

I know. Some of these suggestions are too “out there;” some are too ordinary. It’s my obsession with plot and character AND story, my downfall since age twelve.

I look forward to more films from Michael Glover Smith.  I hope he will at least consider upping the plot game, not for his own preference(s), but for that of more average movie buffs who DO want to see “something happen,” but also want to have a deep dive into character. I suspect that films that “don’t give a f*** about plot” might have difficulty finding financing, but, then again, making four films in just 8 years (and during a pandemic) is remarkable. And, with 8 nominations and 5 wins at film festivals, so is this film.