What makes a family, a family?
Barry Levinson examines the essence of this relationship in his introspective movie Avalon. Almost like looking at someone's photo album, where picture by picture a life story unfolds, this film is a collection of exquisitely crafted scenes that reveal the desires and disappointments of Sam Krichinsky's family as they pursue the American dream.
From the snapshots we learn Sam (Armin Mueller-Stahl) was only able to leave Eastern Europe because his four older brothers pooled together their hard earned wages to pay for his passage. We observe many "family circle" meetings where contributions are collected to bring over other relatives. We join the gathering of aunts, uncles and cousins for crowded Thanksgiving dinners. And we chuckle at the complexities of multiple generations living under the same roof, next door or across the street from each other.
As the years pass and the clan grows, Sam tries to pass on this history to its youngest members. Despite chiding from his wife (Joan Plowright) -- How many times do we need to hear that story?-- the aging man loves to share the wonder he felt when he arrived in Baltimore on July 4, 1914. Unfamiliar with Independence Day celebrations, the starry-eyed immigrant believed the fireworks were welcoming him to his new home. Although Sam's sentimental tales are largely ignored, his grandson Michael (Elijah Wood) hangs on every word.
But America is not always the Promised Land. We witness this gradual disillusionment through a series of little events. First, an act of violence touches their lives. Then the melting pot philosophy contributes to Sam's son and nephew (Aidan Quinn and Kevin Pollack) changing their last name, sensing no significance in their identity or heritage. Even the blessing of increased financial security and a nicer house in the suburbs only leads to feelings of inequality and greater distance between the kin. When an overlooked minor tradition is taken as a major offence, the final undoing of family ties occurs.
Yet this film is about more than the slow unraveling of the Krichinsky's family fabric. Their plight encapsulates the impact of cultural changes on an entire nation. Some of the subtle influences explored in the movie include the effects of affluence, the introduction of television, and attitudes towards the elderly.
It's unlikely such themes will enthrall many little tikes, and perhaps that's just as well. The film contains mild profanities, many depictions of main characters smoking and drinking (including a pregnant woman), a brief scene showing a stabbing victim's blood, and portrayals of children playing recklessly with matches (the negative consequences are emphasized). More mature audiences however, will most probably be able to relate to some of the experiences presented. Enhanced by Randy Newman's poignant musical score, Avalon's bittersweet mosaic yields deep insights into the importance of families.