On Feb. 17, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) closed their festival with the world premiere of “Chosen Family,” both starring and directed by Heather Graham. Graham came on the stage before the screening, thanking producers and all who helped her create her film, which took eight years to develop. As Graham’s sophomore film played on the Arlington Theatre screen, a lackluster introduction paved the way for an even more unimaginative movie. 

“Chosen Family” follows Ann (Heather Graham), a yoga teacher with a pattern of dating toxic men. Her family life is just as disjointed with a drug addict sister, Clio (Julia Stiles), and manipulative parents (Julie Halston and Michael Gross) who put pressure on Ann to help them in tasks she wants no part of. Despite this, Ann has a group of friends, Max (Thomas Lennon), Roz (Andrea Savage) and Frances (Odessa Rae) to support her through the stress of her other relationships. 

With Graham stating in her speech that the film is written for her friends, Ann’s relationships, particularly with her friends, are incredibly surface-level, leaving the audience feeling uninterested in any emotional scenes between the characters. That continues to be the main issue throughout the entire movie — the script doesn’t allow for any intimate moments between the characters. Most interactions with Ann and her friends are shallow, such as discussing the great meal Max prepared for the group or how Ann has a terrible taste in men. Her friends don’t feel like characters but more like moral extensions of her character, who have to remind Ann that she isn’t a bad person. 

“Chosen Family” mainly focuses on Ann’s romantic interest, Steve (John Brotherton). Her relationship with Steve is a perfect match in heaven until the introduction of Steve’s daughter, Lilly (Ella Grace Helton), who hates Ann. 

As for Steve’s character, he is a stereotypical love interest written by a woman. Steve’s a good, thoughtful cook and he accepts Ann’s crazy family on the second date. However, their relationship is incredibly bland, featuring some of the movie’s most awkward dialogue. One example of their interactions includes Steve asking Ann to swim and she just responds to that question by asking Steve his pros and cons. Maybe it’s supposed to be quirky, but the way the lines are delivered is painfully awkward. Their chemistry is non-existent which makes any turmoil between the couple dispassionate.

Additionally, Ann’s relationship with her family had potential to be profound, yet the writing prevents that level of complexity. This is particularly demonstrated in the case of Clio, Ann’s drug-addicted sister, who lives in the garage of their family home. There is a subplot of Clio being molested by her father’s friend when they were children, which Clio blames Ann for “allowing to happen.” The topic is never explicitly said, which is frustrating and seems as if it was only written as a poor attempt to add complexity to the sisters’ relationship. In the film, the siblings rarely have any meaningful conversations. What could’ve been a complex storyline in the film is turned into immature adults who are bitter towards each other. 

In the film’s resolution, Ann realizes that she needs to focus on her own needs rather than the needs of others. She decides to place boundaries between herself and her family, learning to say “no,” and breaks up with Steve because he has no room in his life for her. Ultimately, Ann realizes her real family is her friends, who have supported and loved her throughout everything and she claims to them that they are her “chosen family.”  

Weirdly enough, the theme of “family isn’t always blood” isn’t apparent until the film’s last ten minutes. The sudden revelation feels off-putting, mainly since the movie doesn’t focus on Ann’s friendships whatsoever. Overall, nothing develops in the plot except for Ann, whose only personality traits are having bad taste in men and being a people pleaser, who then becomes someone who can learn to prioritize their well-being. As a whole, Ann’s character is exceptionally two-dimensional. This is made worse by Grahams’ acting, who spends majority of her scenes with an empty look on her face. This blank stare she holds for the entirety of the film devoids her from any personality. So, the audience gets the privilege of looking at a robotic Graham steal the show with her vacant expressions and monotonous voice. 

While the movie’s script is horrible, the cinematography is not much better. Many shots are shaky, making the film feel cheap. Additionally, there is an astounding amount of bird‘s-eye view shots of the town. This above-ground perspective appears in every few scenes and adds nothing to the movie. 

The film feels rushed and every scene feels unfinished, almost as if a draft of the film was being premiered instead of the final product. The entirety of the film is choppy, from the dialogue, to the editing and soundtrack. The movie has to make the theme glaringly obvious in order to make it apparent. It’s unclear what story Graham was trying to tell. It’s doubtful she knew either.

Despite being a movie focused on relationships, one couldn’t care less about the dynamics in the movie, largely because of the subpar writing. Though it was supposed to be a comedy, about a quarter of the theater laughed at the jokes. To say it was a rough watch is an understatement.