Imagine The kids are all right done and C.R.A.Z.Y. with far younger, irresistibly cuter kids. And directed by Ang Lee. You’d come close to Jesus Henry Christ, an affirming alternative family film by Dennis Lee. The writer-director’s creative output may well lead many to question if he is indeed Ang Lee’s younger brother. After all, they are both Asian directors who understand American culture and family better than most Americans, and make gently humorous prestige indie films about dysfunctional American families.
A thematic follow-up to his debut film Fireflies in the Garden, Jesus Henry Christ again explores the themes of genius and dysfunctional families. Henry James Herman (Jason Spevack) is immaculately conceived in a petri dish and brought into the world by his feminist, hardline liberal soccer mom Patricia (Toni Collette). Blessed with a photographic memory and a genius only seen once a century, if at all, the precocious 10-year-old embarks on a quest to find his biological dad – who turns out to be Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen) one of those nutty professors who has raised his daughter Audrey (Samantha Weinstein) to be free of society’s gender codes and norms and wrote a book about it and went on Oprah to promote it.
In the hands of a lesser director, this maelstrom of liberal bait would be a recipe for disaster, or a very annoying film. Dennis Lee however manages to mine great comedy from this material. Beneath its twee Sundance veneer and collection of self-parodying liberal stereotypes (there’s a clearly Caucasian man who speaks, dresses and thinks like a stereotypical angry black man!), there’s a fine family film which pokes gentle fun at a parade of families conservative and liberal, mainstream and otherwise, while at the same time celebrating the good intentions behind every family unit.
That he manages to achieve all this while delivering some very dark comedy where people often do mean things to each other for the laughs, where often bad things happen despite or maybe because of our good intentions, is a sign of Lee’s growth as a director since his debut feature. The cast too is to be commended for their very rare chemistry, which brings out the positive side of a difficult script with very offbeat humour.
Reviewer's note: I watched Jesus Henry Christ in June 2011 when it had its world premiere in Singapore as part of the (failed) ScreenSingapore festival. The film was not released commercially in this territory or it seems in any other, aside from a very limited Stateside release followed by an immediate DVD and Netflix launch.
*: Ang Lee. Well, that's a running joke I kept going with Dennis in our interview in 2011. Which I'll post here one day if my readers (whoever they may be) insist.