The pat plot points of Anne Renton’s The Perfect Family seem ripped straight from the dramedy playbook: A devout housewife gets nominated for Catholic Women Of The Year just as her son leaves his wife for another woman and her daughter announces she’s gay, pregnant, and marrying her girlfriend. Kathleen Turner, in her first film since 2008’s Marley & Me, stars as the prim housewife, who’s jockeying for the recognition with her church rival Sharon Lawrence, a matron just as active, if more calculated, in her community service. Turner desires the attention, but more than that wants the prayer of absolution that comes with winning, for reasons she doesn’t discuss until late into the film. In order to get it, she’s willing to alienate everyone in her family by lying about their behavior and lifestyles, or simply shuffling them away out of sight.
The Perfect Family aims broad in terms of its characterization of the church. (“I don’t have to think, I’m a Catholic!” Turner actually says at one point.) But Turner’s performance is generous even when the film isn’t, and she underplays moments of potential monstrousness (like telling her daughter, played by Emily Deschanel, that she signed a petition against gay adoption) so that they seem like instances of heartfelt conflict and not just the rote spouting of indoctrinated belief. Turner’s interactions with Deschanel are so much weightier than the rest of the film that the other storylines seem extraneous. Jason Ritter, as the son who’s getting divorced and is pursuing a relationship with an older woman, gets shortchanged with an abbreviated arc, and his and Deschanel’s dad, played by Michael McGrady, is there mainly as a plot point.
By bringing in divorce and a shotgun marriage in addition to homosexuality, The Perfect Family loads the dice so heavily it can seem like a fable about religious decrees versus acceptance. The tone wavers between cartoonish (Turner dropping communion wafers on the ground, then retrieving and stuffing them in her mouth to hide her mistake from the priest) and serious (Deschanel telling her mother she doesn’t want her around her baby). In the end, its pleasantly simple story of a woman coming to reconsider her hardline beliefs is just that—simple, an overly uncomplicated look at a one-family microcosm standing in for a larger, uglier, and less easy cultural divide.