Photo by Charles Cadkin. Courtesy Screen Magazine

Like the rest of us in 2020, film director Michael Glover Smith found his carefully laid plans laid to waste by a microscopic agent of chaos and destruction. In the face of delay upon delay, Smith took to walking his Rogers Park neighborhood, pacing past the turreted, Wedgewood-blue, 1893 Victorian home that had inspired Relative, his fourth film, the one he thought he’d be filming as months of COVID-19 holdups stretched into over a year. 

“This whole story started with that house. I first saw it on my walks, before COVID,” he recalls. “It made me think about families, and telling a story that was multigenerational, everyone under one roof,” Smith said. The Victorian—once supposedly owned by Newgard Avenue’s namesake—serves as the setting for most of Relative, which makes its Chicago debut April 5 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The event marks the second Second Tuesday screening since before 2020, following a March 1 Best of the Midwest screening of award-winning shorts. 

“I’d walk a lot during COVID, and I’d walk by the house. We had to keep rescheduling and rescheduling. I was worried, but the owners couldn’t have been nicer about it. So, 13 months of delay, but we eventually got it done.” Smith said. 

Smith cast Relative with some of Chicago’s finest stage actors, all of whom knew the shoot would have a “micro-budget” and worked for the SAG minimum, which “is not that much,” he said. 

Where Smith’s previous movies have been more romance-relationship-centric, Relative weaves a multigenerational web. There’s a central romantic couple to be sure, but they’re in the context of a much larger story about the kind of unbreakable knots that only complex family ties can make. 

Wendy Robie and Francis Guinan play David and Karen Frank, activists in the late 60s, now a matriarch and patriarch in their 60s. Their Rogers Park home is the setting for a graduation celebration for son Benji (Cameron Scott Roberts), a setup that facilitates having the four adult(ish) Frank children back in the family house together, enough baggage and unfinished business among them to fuel a drama. 

Relative, Midwest Film Festival
April 5, 7 PM networking social hour, 8 PM film screening, followed by cast and crew Q&A; Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; Film Center members $6, general admission $12.

Like his brother Benji, Rod (Keith D. Gallagher) also lives at home still, but instead of college, Rod spends his days weeping into his video game console over the loss of his girlfriend, a cam girl he anonymously interacts with online. His father calls him a “fungus.” 

There is also Evonne (Clare Cooney), newly separated from her wife Lucia (Melissa DuPrey) and heartbroken over it. Norma (Emily Lape), meanwhile, has been living in suburban Iowa with her own family but arrives in Rogers Park without any of them, looking pensive indeed. There are memorable turns by Heather Chrisler as Benji’s ex (“You may never have learned to fuck my body but you are intricately fucking my mind”), and Elizabeth Stam as Hekla, an assertive, confident, unflappably charming college junior from Iceland.

“I hope people see it and maybe think about calling their parents,” Smith said. 

Tuesday screenings continue April 12, with the Israeli film Ahed’s Knee