Now on DVD: The Overloaded Family Drama of ‘We Don’t Belong Here’

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We Don't Belong Here

There’s a lot going on in the family drama We Don’t Belong Here. It’s a movie that contains mental illness, the trauma of sexual assault, longstanding feuds, and one of the final performances of the late, great Anton Yelchin. Unfortunately, there’s just too much going on in writer-director Peer Pederson’s film that few moments of We Don’t Belong Here land as intended. Like the family at the center, We Don’t Belong Here is incredibly disjointed.

Nancy Green (Catherine Keener) is the matriarch of the Green family. She has four children, three of which have been diagnosed as bipolar. Her youngest daughter Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) is the only one still living at home and she tries to figure out her place in the world while battling her own bipolar diagnosis. Her son Maxwell (Yelchin) struggles with his demons and is prone to nights of drug use. Her daughter Elisa (Riley Keough) is a pop star that is estranged from her mother. Only Madeline (Annie Stark) seems to have any semblance of a normal life of Nancy’s children. New troubles and old wounds will be opened over the course of the 90 minutes of drama within We Don’t Belong Here.

Lily is the main character of the film and her hushed narration tries to provide the audience with context as to all the moving parts of the story. Here is a teenager that is trying to come to terms with her own form of mental illness and we see her share her struggle with her therapist (Molly Shannon). At the same time, Lily is growing into sexual maturity and finds herself infatuated with her stoner classmate Davey (Austin Abrams). There’s also a contentious relationship between Lily and Madeline, with the elder sister hounding her about taking her medication, something that Lily is often reluctant to do. Making matters more confusing for the teenager is the discovery of Elisa’s teenage diaries, where Lily reads that her sister was sexually abused by Frank Harper (Cary Elwes).

The most interesting relationship with Nancy is her friendship with Joanne (Maya Rudolph), who has had quite a bit of success in her life. The two women are each other confidants and there’s also a sexual overtone to their long-time friendship. That’s fascinating because as we learn later Nancy has her own outdated attitudes towards homosexuality, and confesses that she wishes that her son Max isn’t gay.

Catherine Keener gives a solid performance as the matriarch of this unstable family. The veteran actress brings a sense of emotional distance as she’s overwhelmed and then shifts into maternal concern at other points. But the real standout of We Don’t Belong Here is Anton Yelchin in one of his final roles. Suffering from mental illness and physical injuries after an accident, Yelchin lends his talents to the film’s most emotional scenes and further illustrates why his immense talents will be missed for years to come. As she’s done in The Girlfriend Experience and American Honey, Riley Keough brings a cool sense of detachment to her pop star character. However, it just doesn’t work as effectively here as it has in the past. That may be the result of the Pedersen’s screenplay that maintains a level of distance from Keough’s Elisa that we’re never given a glimpse past her chilled exterior.

Making his feature debut as a writer-director, Peer Pedersen seems overwhelmed by the task. The biggest flaw of We Don’t Belong Here is the fact that the writer-director has a lot on his mind and just doesn’t know how to effectively get all of it out onto the screen. The subplot of Elisa’s sexual abuse seems shoehorned into a story that might’ve been better suited focusing on mental illness and its effects on a family. Matters aren’t helped by one particular sequence that turns out to be a dream sequence; it undermines the emotional impact of what is to follow and operates as a moment of heavy-handed foreshadowing.

We Don’t Belong Here has a number of fascinating ideas that dangle from the loose threads of its overloaded story. It’s frustrating to watch because it just never coalesces into anything more than a movie of unrealized potential. There’s an abruptness to the film’s ending that is quite bewildering and ineffective in regards to its intended emotional impact. The sad truth of We Don’t Belong Here is the most emotional moment in the film comes in the dedication to its late star before the start of the credits.

We Don't Belong Here
  • Overall Score
2.5

Summary

An overstuffed family drama, We Don’t Belong Here features some great performances by Catherine Keener and Anton Yelchin but has too many moving parts for its dramatic moments to have much of an impact.

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