Original Airdate: October 25, 1987
Admit it, whenever someone throws the word "sin" into their TV movie title, you're expecting a sexy TV-PG drama with a soapy edge and a tinge of glamour. I mean, just look at Sins with Joan Collins as an example of how to take one word and make it the best thing ever. So, whenever one of those delightful titles drops into my lap, the excitement and joy overwhelms me. Maybe I even faint, who knows? But I do know that I probably should have looked up Family Sins before I gave it a spin, because it couldn't be farther from melodramatic debauchery, and dammit, there wasn't a shoulder pad in sight. That's not to say that Family Sins isn't fantastic, because it is, but it's also one of the darkest and saddest telefilms I've seen in a while.
Bryan (Thomas Wilson Brown) and Keith (Andrew Bednarski) are two young brothers living under the subtlety strong arm of their father (James Farentino in the most controlled performance of his I have seen so far). Keith is the twinkle in dear old Dad's eyes. He'll do anything to win his pop's approval, excelling at sports, and sometimes rubbing his elevated status in his older brother's face. Bryan is withdrawn and complicated. He hates sports, but his father doesn't care and often ostracizes him for daring to be a computer nerd instead of a jock. The mediator in this family is their somewhat sheepish mother (Jill Eikenberry), who thinks Bryan should do what he wants instead of what his father demands.
Signs of trouble start early. Bryan is a bruiser, dark and a loner. It's not that he doesn't have friends or do well in school, but while other kids are camping and playing catch, Bryan often sits in his room staring at the walls. He has a teacher (Brent Spiner) who sees the potential in Bryan, and to cheer him up, he gives him the class rabbit to take home as a pet. Knowing he can't have a pet, Bryan sneaks him into the house but his new BFF is soon uncovered. Dad tells him to get rid of the rabbit and Brian... kills it!
What do the parents do about Brian's evil deed? Absolutely nothing. Mother wants Dad to lay off, and Dad wants to sweep it under the rug anyway. So, the family goes on a summer outing, renting a cabin by the lake (if you've seen Cabin by the Lake, you can guess this can in no way end well). After a strange game of control, Bryan accidentally lets Keith drown. And that's just the beginning of the end of this family.
Met with mixed reviews, I'll admit that Family Sins is looking to pound its audience over the head with emotion. The real issues is that viewers may wonder to what end? There are no answers or happy endings to be had. Not that it needs anything like that, but Family Sins is a bit of endurance test in terms of depressing content, with little in the way of relief. But it's also so damn engrossing and well made, I found that I truly cared about Bryan, despite his obvious troubles, and I wanted to see something good come out of all of the darkness.
One critic likened Family Sins to Ordinary People, and they were quite right, even all the way up to the boating accident. And while I'm not sure this is Oscar level filmmaking (but it's quite confident), James Farentino has never been better or more effective. Gone are his signature wide eyed OTT deliveries (not that I don't adore that), and this is by far Farentino at his most human and relatable. He's not necessarily likable, but it's easy to see how he honestly felt he was doing right by his family. It's a complicated performance, and expertly handled.
Now that I'm traveling into the more dramatic 80s and 90s domestic-centered TVM output, Jill Eikenberry has been popping up on my radar. She is an excellent actress, always drawing me in immediately by exuding a likable presence. She's fantastic in this film, and is really the everyman, speaking for the audience, demanding answers where there are none. The child actors are also great in their roles, and Spiner shows off some early adorable in a part that I wish was more integral to the film. I recommend Family Sins to those who enjoy these kinds of family dramas. It's quiet and methodical, but it's also a downer so bring your kleenex, and maybe a nice glass of wine. Worth seeing just for Farantino.