Maddie is a young woman who discovers a cassette tape recording of her parents’ couples therapy session from 30 years earlier, right before Maddie was born. In these tapes, Maddie hears something that discomfits and hurts her profoundly.
As she and her boyfriend head to the family home for Sunday night dinner, she keeps hearing the secret she discovered in her mind — making for a powderkeg of a family meal.
Written and directed by Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, this witty family dramedy has a veneer of urban sophistication, recalling filmmakers like Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach. Like other comedies of manners, the storytelling is rich with stylized, often droll dialogue, and is attuned to how conversation reveals character and can prove cataclysmically eventful.
But it also has the beating heart of a family drama, exploring how layers of long-running tension and assumptions can shift with new revelations, sending up emotional earthquakes in the process. The family dynamic is established with sharp, intelligent writing, as quicksilver editing and seemingly casual camerawork capture small moments between the different family members.
Viewers quickly see the family is close-knit, with flourishes of eccentricity and absurdity, including the presence of a “life doula” brought to dinner by Maddie’s sister Fran. The cast of actors — led by Maddie Fischer as Maddie, and including veteran character actors Jay O. Sanders and Maryann Plunkett as her parents –hit these comic moments with clever, sly understatement.
But as Maddie looks at the details of her family home — the pictures of her and her mother when she was a kid, for instance — she can’t help but see them differently. And when she explodes in resentment and hurt, she sets off a contagion of deep emotions and even deeper truths, with the collective ensemble hitting a perfect storm of both difficult emotion and comic outbursts.
Entertaining, relatable and unafraid of unvarnished emotion, “Tapes” seems light on its feet, with its quick rhythms and sharply observant eye for telling and ironic detail. Its wry sense of humor overlays a deeper minefield of hurts, as well as a secret history of pain — layers that are handled with genuine commitment to feeling, but also with a certain nimbleness and eye for irony. Juxtaposing these tones in “Tapes” is a balancing act that touches upon the complexity of family life, gesturing at both the joy and importance of belonging, as well as the price we pay in silence and sometimes sadness to maintain familial equilibrium.