REVIEW: ‘Found Family’ (2021) is a Sweet Addition to the Lesbian Bildungsroman

“‘Found Family’ is a lovely homage to the families we make in our quest for love and compassion.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Screened at the Scottish Queer International Film Festival in 2021, Found Family is a sweet addition to the lesbian bildungsroman in film. Directed by Esmée Lavalette, the short film follows a closeted Asian-American lesbian teenager, Elyse Rudy (Nicole Ohara), as she struggles to find her place within a dysfunctional, homophobic family: her father Rick (Edward Wooden) is abusive and often lashes out at her mother Sheila (Juls Hoover), who stays silent in contempt—even when he hits Elyse for being gay. While a difficult watch, the film shines in its layered portrayal of domestic abuse alongside a lesbian teenager’s coming out experience, in which she stays silent about her identity because she has spent most of her life watching her mother do exactly the same.

The film begins with a tense and uncomfortable dinner scene where Elyse’s father berates his wife for serving dry bread rolls; she apologises, rushes off to get more butter, then sweetly spreads the butter for him while he scrutinises her. The camera gets closer until all three of them are within the frame—with Elyse slightly out of it—hence amplifying the horror of a self-contained patriarchal, nuclear family that ensures women are reduced to silence, all while being utterly helpless to do anything about it. Much of lesbian existence, too, is threatened by male violence: some lesbians come out later in life, after having marriages and children, because enduring years of misogyny has rendered them unable to envision living a life beyond heterosexuality. With reference to the film’s title, perhaps it is biological families that constrain queer individuals, rather than being a source of love. 

Edward Wooden as Rick, Nicole Ohara as Elyse, and Juls Hoover as Sheila are seated at a rectangular dinner table. Rick and Sheila are seated on opposite ends of each other while Elyse is positioned in the middle of them, along the horizontal edge.
Image courtesy of Esmée Lavalette

Yet in contrast to the abuse at the dinner table, Elyse excitedly gushes to her long-distance girlfriend, Alex Santiago (Kasey Furginson), as they FaceTime each other in the privacy of Elyse’s bedroom. Away from her father, Elyse is clearly confident about who she is, and even boldly agrees to meet Alex despite the possible repercussions. Every moment is punctuated with conversation instead of silence, and the lighthearted score reminds audiences that another queer life—filled with joy and tenderness—is possible. As a Chinese lesbian who lives in a country where same-sex representations are banned, Elyse and Alex’s blossoming relationship reminds of my own queer experiences: even in the closet, I found people who cared for me as I am, and this found family is just as important as my biological ties.

Nicole Ohara as Elyse is seated on her bed, hugging a panda plushie in her room while she FaceTimes her girlfriend using her laptop. She is smiling.
Image courtesy of Esmée Lavalette

As with any bildungsroman, the protagonist faces an adversity which allows them to grow up and understand themselves better. For gay teenagers, this self-realization is delayed because of stigma, fear and shame, and it is fitting that Elyse’s eventual confession to her family takes place at the dinner table—a location where fear has always been left to fester like an open wound. Chaos ensues, Elyse’s father cuts off the internet connection, but Elyse manages to make a call to Alex before he beats her up. Elyse’s mother continues to say nothing. This time however, there is a defiance to Elyse’s countenance. She writes a farewell letter to her parents, and leaves to stay with Alex and her family. The film’s coming-of-age arc is completed with Elyse and Alex’s heartwarming embrace when they finally meet, and their happiness is palpable in the bright hues that surround them. Found families are often a refuge for gay teenagers, and Lavalette’s short film is a lovely homage to the families we make in our quest for love and compassion.

Directed by: Esmée Lavalette 

Written by: Cassandra Burge 

Produced by: Ginevra Atti 

Cast: Nicole Ohara, Kasey Furginson, Edward Wooden, Juls Hoover, Kang Kim, Carmen Ferrera