Mayim Bialik’s directorial debut As They Made Us explores the complexities of family and grief through the eyes of those stuck in the sandwich generation. For Abigail (Dianna Agron), a divorced mother of two, this means juggling her own family responsibilities while also tending to the needs of her ailing parents. It does not help that her abrasive mother Barbara (Candice Bergen) has no basic understanding of boundaries. She still routinely calls Abigail’s ex-husband Peter (Charlie Weber) whenever her daughter is unavailable to hear her latest rant. When not blowing up people’s phones unnecessarily, her mother is calling to notify Abigail that her father Eugene (Dustin Hoffman) has fallen again.
Unwilling to accept that Eugene is suffering from a degenerative condition, Barbara relies heavily on her daughter to clean up his messes and take him to doctor’s appointments. Her mother’s reluctance to hire full-time help, and her knack for firing the nurses who provide Eugene with gummy edibles for medicinal purposes, also adds to Abigail’s long lists of stresses.
Feeling like she has been left to cross an ocean with only a pair of life jackets to keep her family afloat, the burden Abigail carries is great. She can barely get a breather to get her own life, including a potential romance with her landscaper crush Jay (Justin Chu Cary), back on track. Complicating matters is her brother Nathan (Simon Helberg), still emotionally scarred by the trauma of the past, who has been estranged for two decades. However, when Eugene is given only six months to live, Abigail must figure out how to stitch the tattered strands of their dysfunctional family together while simultaneously coming to terms with her own turbulent childhood.
It is through Abigail and Nathan’s childhood that Bialik begins to peel back the layers of the family dynamics to reveal its destructive core. The opening moments, in which the siblings sit in the back of the family car as their parents can be heard arguing in the front, quickly establish the cracks in the family unit. As the film flashes back to key moments over the years, Bialik slowly plays with the audience’s shifting perception of Barbara and Eugene. One not only sees Eugene’s violent outbursts, but also the various ways his wife often stood by him.
While Bialik’s lens captures the sense of fear that Eugene’s outbursts evoked in the past, it is Barbara whose manic ways have been as detrimental to her children as Eugene’s physical attacks. As Nathan remarks at one point, the “wreckage” that his mother caused was far more insidious.
What makes As They Made Us such an intriguing work is the way Abigail wrestles with the duality of her parents. They may have been horrible people at times, but they are still her family. Seeing Eugene as a fragile old man who wants nothing more than to see Nathan one last time is a reminder that, for all his flaws, he is still human.
Although Bialik does offer one fleeting moment of joy from the past, the moments of levity all arise in Abigail’s present. Most of these revolve around her mother’s stubbornness and need to control every situation. The comedic beats nicely offset both the volatile flashback sequences and the meditative exploration of grieving someone while they are still alive.
Bialik pulls off this delicate balance thanks in part to the fine performances by the ensemble cast. Displaying an astute understanding of how to let scenes breathe, Bialik’s cast successfully navigates both the dramatic and comedic moments with grace. Agron, who must do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and Helberg prove that they are more than capable of holding their own against veteran scene-stealers Bergen and Hoffman.
By having the likes of Bergen and Hoffman, who excel in portraying complex characters, playing the parents, Bialik ensures that Barbara and Eugene feel like real people rather than caricatures.
The work of Bergen and Hoffman help to lift the film over some of the more conventional moments. While the film nails the overall emotion and familial awkwardness, there are times when Bialik opts to play it a little too safe from both a plot and visual standpoint. Despite this Bialik shows plenty of confidence and promise as a director. As They Made Us offers an honest examination of how the scars of the past shape the complicated bonds of the present.