A dysfunctional family can sit at the core of plenty of movie genres. Comedy, action, and even horror can take us on that journey, and As They Made Us portrays it well through drama. This film is the directorial debut of Mayim Bialik (Blossom, The Big Bang Theory), who also takes writing credit alongside story editor Jonathan Cohen. Bits of Bialik’s Jewish heritage are found throughout the film, exploring life, death and beautiful traditions along the way.
As They Made Us takes viewers on a journey of this familial dysfunction through the eyes of daughter, mother and sister, Abigail (Dianna Agron), while she navigates through life after divorce and caring for her dying father (Dustin Hoffman). With an overbearing, toxic mother (Candice Bergen) Abby has found herself estranged from her brother (Simon Helberg), dealing with the chaos that is their family entirely on her own, or so she feels, anyway.
This movie is one that can resonate with anyone, whether you’re a parent, child, or partner. The depth of struggles in As They Made Us is explored through lovers, siblings, parents and children, work and friends. We are shown trauma cascading down from generation to generation and from home life to work life.
Agron (Glee, I Am Number Four) perfectly portrays a woman trying to hold everything and everyone together, without handling her own trauma, wants and needs. Abby is written by someone who knows what it’s like to be a mother and a child, and the weight that can place on someone’s shoulders. Trying to protect your children from the trauma you have endured and keeping traditions and faith alive through them is no small feat.
“We are shown trauma cascading down from generation to generation…”
Small gestures are included, like taking her children from the room where her mother is melting down. We see her children tuck her in with the same prayer she puts them to bed with each night. These are just glimpses of the positive effect she has chosen to have on her children’s lives, the complete opposite that her parents had on her. This is where I credit Bialik the most, as small touches like these can make a film, and they absolutely did here.
The cast of As They Made Us never pulled their punches. What you think is a story about a loving daughter saying goodbye to her sweet, elderly father, Eugene, becomes entangled with abuse, pain, and struggle. We see short scenes from the past where Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man) is nothing like the man we know in the present. His ability to play a fired up, abusive father and switch to this innocent, sweet dying man is triggering and heartbreaking. You can love and hate Hoffman’s character in a manner of minutes, so clearly he is doing something right.
“As They Made Us is an emotional journey, but one absolutely worth taking.”
Bergen’s (Miss Congeniality, Murphy Brown) character is a little less redeeming, with very few likeable moments, as it should be. Her motherly role is entitled and toxic, causing damage to her children that her son, Nathan (Helberg), describes as less tangible than that caused by their father. Like it sneaks into your mind, poisoning you. Bergen plays an unlikable woman well, but effortlessly displays a softer side when needed, which wasn’t often.
The relationship between Nathan and Abby was possibly the hardest for me to watch, which is a good indicator that Agron and Helberg (The Big Bang Theory) did exactly what was needed. The bond between brother and sister is a complicated one, especially when trauma is involved. We see two people separated, who clearly don’t want to be, when they are products of the same upbringing—“as they made us” so to speak—and watch as that story unfolds, hoping they can come back together.
My only issue with As They Made Us is that I wanted more. Ending on a positive note is one thing, but somehow I found myself hoping for more of a future for Nathan and Abby. There is a climactic dispute between mother and daughter, but there seems to be no fallout afterwards, no repercussions or change, and our characters simply move forward. I suppose such is life, and that makes for a more realistic ending. They simply just were.
As They Made Us resonated with me. I saw myself in Abby, the mother, making breakfast and living in chaos. I saw myself in Abby, the daughter, constantly worrying, taking care of others and saying goodbye to her father. I saw myself in Barbara, the mother, protecting her children in the middle of the night, and even as Nathan, the brother, doing what is necessary to protect himself. I saw the deep love that grows between two people who have been together as long as Barbara and Eugene.
As They Made Us is essentially a collection of several short stories about each individual character and how they were affected by the circumstances of their lives. These stories create the reality they are living in now, and it is our privilege as viewers to watch them navigate who they have become, and who they choose to be from here. As They Made Us is an emotional journey, but one absolutely worth taking.