- Writing Effective Found Family Films (Part 1)
- Writing Effective Found Family Films (Part 2)
Found Family films are not new, but you may not have explicitly heard the term before. It simply means a film featuring groups of people who are not genetically or legally related and joined by circumstances to try and accomplish a common story goal by the end. These movies cross many genres, but common themes among them include identity, acceptance, belonging, survival, growth, fulfillment, and purpose.
This article focuses on film and TV, but the concept of found family has been around for centuries. Literature abounds with examples, and even fairy tales utilize this concept.
Peter Pan written by J.M. Barrie in 1902 is basically a found family storyline featuring the Lost Boys and their adventures in Neverland. So, is L. Frank Baum’s 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz which became the seminal 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz. Dorothy and Toto are connected, but Tin Man, Scarecrow, Lion, Glinda and the rest are all found family headed for different reasons on a common journey.
Any version of Robin Hood including the original (from 1377) is viable as found family.
In fact, found family tales go back to the tribes of Israel in the old testament, and the new testament of Jesus’ apostles for example.
Found Family stories are also called Family of Choice, meaning that you are choosing these people to be with, not born into them. If your family isn’t all it should, you can get a new one based on common goals and ideologies. Biological brothers and sisters may share common experience, but rarely also share common interests.
Several styles of films do very well as found family stories. The most obvious is an adventure with a common goal like in Stand By Me. The aforementioned Wizard of Oz is a solid example. Guardians of the Galaxy is another. Peter Quill, aka Star Lord, and his ragtag band of misfits (sorry for the cliché phrase, but it had to be said) have nearly nothing in common except greed (and revenge), but must work together to get the Orb and survive.
Star Lord (Chris Pratt), who has no family he knows of, having been kidnapped as a young boy after his mother died, and although he’s done quite well on his own, he necessarily now needs these others to accomplish his current goals.
The why now? part of any movie is particularly strong in adventure films since it implies (or specifically states) a ticking clock that must be accomplished. This is important because under normal circumstances, these groups of mismatched adventurers would not band together and/or stay together. The urgency of the adventure cobbles them into the family part of a found family.
Robbers And Cops
Even though the main characters in The Godfather and its subsequent sagas revolved around family, the other members were part of the mafia family and did what the Corleone’s required. The Sopranos is perhaps a better example since Tony’s family was part of each storyline, but his crew at the Bada Bing club formed the nucleus of the show and carried out the crimes.
Peaky Blinders features a mixed group of young gangsters of Irish Traveler and Romani descent who carried out crimes and violence under the leadership of Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy).
To fight these strong criminal families were the cops, like in Gangster Squad and The Untouchables who were parts of task forces mandated to take down crime bosses Mickey Cohen and Al Capone respectively. To do so, they had to surround themselves with the help of like-minded law enforcement who would be able to get the job done. Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) had to build an entire team from scratch of like-minded cops when he discovered how corrupt the Chicago police department was.
Strike Up The Band
Band movies especially use these conflicts of disparate members to their advantage. Sing Street is a British film about aspiring teen musicians who want to play music, but in reality, their leader, Conor (Ferdio Walsh-Peelo) only wants to impress a girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton). When Conor gets the girl, then loses the girl, he lets his band mates down, betraying their common purpose and showing the cracks in the tenuous glue that had held them together. Good stuff.
Straight Outta Compton tells the compelling tale of NWA and Ruthless Records whose shared experiences and goals made cultural history by putting into powerful words the injustices of their lives.
Daisy Jones and The Six is a solid example of a group of people who eventually become a successful band. The Six (really five) have some success when they start after they move to California from Pittsburgh. When Daisy Jones comes aboard they are skyrocketed to fame beyond their dreams, but even then, it’s tenuous and conflict-ridden. Having been in many club bands in a previous life, I can say that the alliance of musicians is almost always an uneasy one. Personalities shoved together by circumstances give the whole endeavor a constant tension both good and bad.
All of which leads to this next point about the people who make up the group in any found family film.
We May Not Like Each Other, But…
No matter the genre: adventure, heist, band, etc., in order to get maximum power out of the story, the individuals may share a common goal, but they should in no way share much beyond that. This ensures stakes are raised when each has their own agenda beyond the main agenda.
The TV series Glee was about a group of high school student performers who are as different as a bag of irregular jelly bellies. There was a football player, a diva or two, a gay member, a few cheerleaders, a bad boy etc. They clashed in every way you can imagine, but when they got on stage (or faced a hurtled Slushy), the switch flipped and they were family. As the series developed, they became more of a family in that they supported and loved each other, but initially they were always at constant odds.
Of course, the biggest component of the found family film is the members themselves. Even if they are shades of the same type of character, like in The Big Bang Theory, they are unique and bring something no other individual does. The mismatch provides a lot of the explosive energy for the films along their shared goal path.
If you watch the brilliant Ball of Fire (1941) which is similar to The Big Bang Theory, you’ll see a very familiar group of nerds reflected in the ‘family’ group with Gary Cooper playing the Sheldon role and Barbara Stanwyck filling the Penny part nicely. And only sixty-seven years before the hilarious TV series! The educators in the film, like the lovable geeks in Big Bang, provide loads of opportunity for conflict because even though they are all a ‘type’ of person, and have gathered for one purpose, they also have agendas of their own and ideas of how to achieve the stated goal.
A disparate group of men and women just simply always creates conflict, the lifeblood of any story. Drive has various members working on one goal. In a heist movie, like Oceans 11, leader Danny Ocean (George Clooney) surrounds himself with his group of thieves to do a heist, brought together and funded by Eliot Gould’s character. Brad Pitt is his friend and lieutenant, Casey Affleck, a gifted mechanic, Don Cheadle, explosives expert, etc.
They are all there for their skills, but they also create a group of misfits who might at any time blow the gambit because although they are joined by common purpose, they are not in lockstep with each other.
Maximum conflicts abound in any criminal enterprise movie.
In Love/Hate, the men who are part of a gang do not much like each other but they are held together by John Boy (Aidan Gillen) and Darren (Robert Sheehan). Star Lord, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) from Fast and Furious, and even Mr. Schue in Glee are all strong leaders who keep the group together despite any conflicts. They are the field generals who lead the battle and show the rest how to make the group work – or else.
Coach Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) is a larger-than-life figure who makes his team, who have become a ‘family’, succeed. Carter broaches no nonsense and imbues the team with a sense of purpose. In order to accomplish that purpose they must become a strong a family unit and put aside differences until the goal of winning is achieved.
If you think about it, we’ve all probably been in these situations many times either as a member or leader of some group. Once the stated goal/project is accomplished, the connections remain but fade in strength.
So, found family films, many times have a short-lived, come-together situation and then that’s it. For these and other reasons it’s hard to do a sequel of any film which is why the found family Fast and Furious franchise is so remarkable and enduring.