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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Egoyan's 'Next of Kin': Role playing and dysfunctional family values

Through the recommendation of a friend, I discovered Atom Egoyan's first film Next of Kin (not to be confused with the 1989 silliness of the same name that starred Patrick Swayze), which despite its tiny budget and unknown actors delves into some themes I find fascinating. Its look at identity, role playing, and the ways we escape and accept the roles society offers us, is still very relavent 23 years later.

The tale's central character is Peter Foster, a 23 year-old with a penchant for pretense who feels stifled by the expectations of his controlling upper middle class background. He enters group counseling with his parents to try to unlock the source of his existential ennui, and is captivated by his therapist's ability to direct his patients' lives toward happy endings.

The sessions are videotaped, and Peter likes the idea of performing for the camera, speaking the lines expected of the dutiful son. Later, while at the doctor's office reviewing himself interacting with his parents, he discovers a tape of another family. Watching the Armenian triad of father, mother and daughter try to cope with the memory of a son given away for adoption, Peter sees an opportunity to pursue a new kind of role playing — taking the place of both the prodigal child and the probing counselor.

It's an interesting reversal, where a white, well-to-do kid trades in his already assimilated identity for that of the scion of Armenian immigrants still trying to adapt to North America. His new father, George Deryan, has his own hangups, especially when it comes to controlling his artist daughter Azah, but that just allows Peter to practice his ability at interpersonal problem solving. The new situation is no less dysfunctional than the one he came from, but the difference is the level of familial control Peter is able to enjoy as the miraculously returned Bedros.

It's a very humanizing look at both sides of the cultural divide. The advantage Peter enjoys is his ability to redefine himself and escape the trap of expectations. Each of us faces similar artificial limits on what we can do and who we can become, and depending on our personal adaptability and social context, some of us will be more successful than others at escaping them.
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