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Review: The Mattachine Family – “an enjoyable tear-jerker that earns its emotional heart.”

Thomas (Nico Tortorella) and Leah (Emily Hampshire) sitting on the Mattachine Steps in Silverlake. Credit: Huckleberry Media, all rights reserved

The Mattachine Society was a gay rights group founded in 1950 by a man named Harry Hay.  A landmark in Los Angeles, The Mattachine Steps is dedicated to that early organization whose members sought change within the system for equality.  Over the last couple of decades, many positive changes have finally occurred.  This included acquiring certain rights like marriage and parenthood, which forever altered and improved the freedoms gay people experience.  In his feature directorial debut, Andy Vallentine examines what these gains mean in the face of family, love and identity in The Mattachine Family.  

Executive produced by Zach Braff, The Mattachine Family starts with a lot of exposition through voice-over to catch us up in the life of Thomas (Nico Tortorella) and his husband, Oscar (Juan Pablo Di Pace).  It’s not the last time we will hear that narration either, it cuts in and out of the film, depriving the audience of scenes it could have shown instead of just explaining.  It relies heavily on this technique to propel the film forward, though it is truly a compelling and touching story.

Early through that first bout of narration, we learn that Oscar was a child actor whom Thomas grew up watching.  They are now happily married, but Oscar feels a need to expand their family.  They foster a child, making memories together for one full year.  They created a family, but when the birth mother comes back, they are forced to give their foster son up.  The grief that comes with this loss strains the marriage, and with Oscar going to Massachusetts to film a new series that will set his career on fire, Thomas is left behind to figure out his feelings on fatherhood and their relationship.  

Luckily he has the help of his oldest friend, Leah (Schitt’s Creek alum Emily Hampshire) to navigate his place in the world.  Hampshire adds a lot of light and energy to the film, acting as a balance to Tortorella’s more reserved Thomas.  Leah acts as a compass, pointing Thomas towards his true north, his purpose.  The chemistry of their friendship is sweet, their intimacy that of close siblings, whether they are competing over climbing those Mattachine steps, or asking each other life’s big questions.  Their on-screen relationship is truly endearing.  

But, none of this works without the film’s star, Nico Tortorella whose performance here is tender and nuanced.  As the emotional core of the film, they had a challenge at hand, but their ability to portray all of Thomas’ deep feeling and conflict are the glue that hold The Mattachine Family together.  Perhaps best known for playing Josh in seven seasons of the TV series Younger opposite Sutton Foster, Tortorella shows their range and capability of being a film lead.  They are a truly magnetic performer.

Written by Danny Valentine, the director’s husband and creative partner, The Mattachine Family is a personal story and stems from conversations the two of them had together about whether and when they were going to have children.  They didn’t see themselves or their discussions reflected on screen and set out to bring this story to life, an important addition to a growing and accessible library of LGBTQ cinema.  Though the film focuses on some aspects that are unique to LGBTQ families, the overall themes here are universally relatable.  The decision to expand a family is not always easy, and there can be fear, uncertainty, and grief along the way, no matter who you are.  

Family also changes as you get older.  Some family is related by blood, some is who you choose to surround yourself with.  That idea of family, love and how it truly informs and influences self-identity weaves itself through this film, in all different and wonderful forms.  Though there were some storytelling techniques that could have worked better, in the end, and largely due to its superb cast (that also includes Cloie Wyatt Taylor, Carl Clemons-Hopkins and a scene stealing Heather Matarazzo) The Mattachine Family is an enjoyable tear-jerker that earns its emotional heart.   

The Mattachine Family is currently available on digital and will be available to own on Blu-Ray June 25th.

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