A Death In the Family

By Kate Haley | Comedy
A wealthy family mourns a tragic death. Then the sinister truth is revealed.

A well-to-do family has gathered for an elegant dinner. A formal affair, they're dressed up and the meal on the table has been prepared with an eye for detail and intricacy.

But the feast is a sad affair, beginning with a toast in remembrance of a beloved, recently lost family member named Helen. As each member offers a toast to Helen, we see how Helen has affected everyone in the family, revealing a family's deeper psychodrama in the process.

Written and directed by Kate Haley, this short comedy is visually elegant, with an opulent formality in the set design and framing, defined by the richly appointed dining room dominated by a large table, where a nicely plated meal awaits them. Kicking off with upbraiding son Darren for his tardiness, the patriarch Pete begins with a speech both explaining, apologizing and still honoring his relationship with Helen, who was very special to him.

At first, it seems Pete's inappropriately close relationship with Helen intruded upon the family's harmony. But as Pete's daughter recites a poem about Helen and then the mother of the family speaks, we realize Helen has had complicated relationships with everyone in the family. The language and dialogue also have a heightened quality, with polished phrasing and a deep thrum of emotion rendered through wickedly portentous pacing.

But there's a sly sense of humor that works its way through the stylized dignity, making for an unusual, witty reveal of who Helen is. But rather than "zinging" us with the reveal, the storytelling sustains the joke to fascinating effect, revealing a more complicated, funnier and perhaps family dynamic, full of seething guilt and suppressed anger. The excellent cast plays it all straight, with a surface somberness that falls away to reveal a familial knot of resentments, neglect and general dysfunction. And in the middle of it all sits Helen, whose life and loss have brought it all to the surface.

Handsome to look at and distinctive in sensibility, "A Death In the Family" is a beautifully crafted, wry and quirky entry in a rich tradition of "family dinner" shorts, where a gathering reveals the intricate psychological dynamics in a group, often surfacing deep-rooted patterns in all their difficulty. Food is shared, conversation is made, arguments bubble up, voices are raised, and sometimes relationships are shifted... or not. In this case, the fragile glue holding the family together is gone, revealing an emotional mess in its wake before anyone even gets a bite.

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