The holiday season puts most people in a good mood. However, being in too good of a mood causes trouble. Director Andrew Fitzgerald uses the pressures of the season, ethnicity, and morality to craft a surprisingly effective short thriller. His ability to build and diffuse tension, as well as a very talented cast, helps The Family Circus stick in your mind long after the credits roll.

A fight sounds out through a December night when a young man returns home. After receiving multiple DUIs, Paul (Blake Dang) crashed his car once again. His father Bill (Scott Subiono) and mother Linh (Elyse Dinh) do not want to turn him into the police. That’s when brother John (Michael Nguyen Manceau) decides to take the fall for his brother. When the police officer (Michael Ironside) asks to come inside after filling out the paperwork, the family struggles to keep the lie going.

The setup to The Family Circus begins with a moral quandry and answers it quickly. How far are we willing to go for family? For John, the answer is immediate. Protecting his brother is all that matters to him, even if only to prove he’s got his family’s back. While he does not live at home anymore, Paul has stayed at home (whether by choice or necessity does not really matter). Even as an outsider, John can do this for his family. From there, Fitzgerald muddies the waters when the officer arrives.

From here, Fitzgerald gets to showcase exciting visuals and the proverbial Hitchcockian “bomb” under the table. The cinematography shifts outside the house, replacing the soft lighting of the house with electric blues. The chilly weather and establishing shots provide gorgeous images. Close ups on special Christmas tree light bulbs further enhances the visual flare of The Family Circus, while also serving important plot functions.

When Ironside enters the short, he plays into his physical size and ability to make the world unsettling. Even as police officer, he brings the subtext of suspicion. In a story where the characters opposite Ironside are already getting caught in a lie, the extra tension turns up the tension like a pressure cooker.

Fitzgerald allows his actors to bite into the rich racial and generational political differences that exist between our character. Literally sitting them at the dining room table, he provides them with a verbal feast that lets them throw barbs at each other. Knowing how directors have used police in recent films and shorts helps us expect the worst, and Fitzgerald uses that shorthand to his advantage.

Overall, The Family Circus features excellent performances from the entire cast. It’s easy to see how they would be drawn to the material. The way they bounce off each other only strengths each performance. The only downside is that this is a short. The runtime does not allow Fitzgerald and his actors to dig into complicated ideas they raise. It will be extremely interesting to see if The Family Circus is expanded into a feature film in the future, as it more than has the goods to sustain a feature length film.

Alan’s Rating: 9/10

What did you think of The Family Circus? Let us know in the comments below! The Family Circus is currently playing the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in Short Program 4.

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