Forgiving the Franklins

Grinning Idiot Entertainment,

Jay Floyd

Teresa Willis,
Robertson Dean,
Vince Pavia,
Mari C. Blackwell,

Pop DaSilva,
Zak Spears (as Khris Scaramanga)

Rated R, 98 minutes

Losing The Apple
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, July 2009

Forgiving The Franklins is advertised as a black comedy that satirizes Christian Fundamentalist bigotry and intolerance. It's an interesting film that has a great point to make but, ultimately, gets too ridiculously heavy handed at the end. Despite this, the rest of the film has been haunting me for days.

The Franklins are a very uptight and religious Southern family. There is absolutely no joy in their scripted lives. Betty and Frank Franklin (Teresa Willis and Robertson Dean) have been having brief and sterile sex for years with their eyes closed. Betty is obsessed with being the perfect homemaker and Frank wants to make partner at his law firm. Their eighteen year old son, Brian (Vince Pavia), is the star of the football team and a closeted homosexual who hates himself because he has a crush on his coach. Their teen-aged daughter, Caroline (Aviva), is a cheerleader with self esteem issues. The Franklins are God-fearing, conformist pillars of the community.

Everything changes after the family survives a car crash. The daughter is left crippled while the other three are comatose for several days. Presumably, they have "died" and gone to the other side. Walking through a large field, they meet Jesus, who is chopping down a large cross. When asked why he is "committing sacrilege," Jesus calls the cross "a very, very annoying marketing tool." The Franklins are shocked but Jesus continues by saying "These things aren't sacred, it's a piece of wood...Of all the things I tried to do with my life, this is how I'm remembered? This was the worst day of my life, don't get me started!" He then pulls a bloody apple out of the backs of each of their heads ("Don't worry folks, you won't miss them at all") and essentially frees them from the guilt of original sin. He tells them to lighten up and enjoy life, and sends them back.

Suddenly, Mom and Dad are enjoying passionate sex for the first time in their lives and their daughter is shocked to find both of them walking around the house naked. Betty even walks outside to get the paper without bothering to dress first. While they continue to keep God in their hearts, perhaps now more so than ever, their lives no longer revolve around going through the motions at Bible meetings and church. The parents accept their gay son for who he is and are thrilled when he tells them he just had sex with his football coach. Meanwhile, Caroline is bitter that she was left crippled and now she is repulsed by her family's sudden "sinful behavior." This is nothing compared to how the rest of the town feels.
The Religious Right will hate this movie. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it myself. I detested the ending while, at the same time, I was very moved by many of the scenes that preceded it. I love films that satirize religious hypocrisy but this one has a hard time finding its voice and striking the right tone. It's obvious what writer/director Jay Floyd is trying to say but his methods are, at times, a bit crude. It goes without saying that there are many dangerous religious fanatics in this world but the extreme actions that will eventually be taken by Betty's best friend are more in line with the mother in Stephen King's Carrie. In order for the dark climax to work, the film needed to be more outrageous and over-the-top like Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
Still, there is much that is interesting in Forgiving The Franklins and much of it is a delight. It was actually quite touching to watch 3/4 of this rigid family discover joy for the first time in their lives, and much of it is rib-slapping funny. The MPAA rated the film R for "strong sexual content including a scene of aberrant intimacy, graphic nudity, frank dialogue and some language." I'm actually surprised that the film escaped the dreaded NC-17, but if the MPAA considers the scene where Mom and Dad really explore their sexuality to be "aberrant intimacy" then these people need to get themselves a sex life. (You will never look at ice cubes the same way again.) For the film's best howler, check out when one of Frank's law partners announces that he's going to divorce his wife because of her lack of interest in sex and Frank asks the man if he ever asked her what she would like to do in bed. Frank then proceeds to describe, in graphic detail, the previous' evening's hot sex to the horror of his colleagues. While howlingly funny, it is also sad because it never occurred to either of his uptight partners to ever ask their wives what pleases them.
Another hilarious scene occurs at the dinner table as Brian nonchalantly shares his ecstasy over having lost his virginity to his coach. The proud parents are thrilled, and relieved that the coach used a condom, but express concern that the poor man might lose his job and that maybe they should wait until he graduates before they start dating. (The coach, by the way, is played by legendary gay porn star Zak Spears and, surprisingly, he can act. Their brief shower interlude is sexy and the coach does ask Brian if he is 18.) Daughter Caroline is appalled and leaves the dinner table while the puzzled Mother just asks, "What's gotten into her?"
The point of the film, ultimately, is that it is possible to be spiritual without being judgmental about everything that doesn't fit into one's personal fundamentalist dogma. When Betty's best friend, Peggy, calls their gay son an abomination because of what it says in the Bible ("in black and white"), Dad tries to contain his temper and replies that God provided the pen and paper but men wrote it down. Ironically, Betty has kept secret that Peggy had an abortion in college while Peggy, being such a "good Christian," gossips about the Franklins' "degenerate" behavior all over town.
As I said, there is much about Forgiving The Franklins that is brilliant, but this film is all over the place and I hated the ending (it belonged in a different movie). As much as it annoys me when the Bible is misinterpreted by small minded people, it is unfair to label all small town Christians as being hateful and bigoted; not all Christians are like the Reverend Fred Phelps. Still, I understand the director's point, I just think he went a little too far. But I can't stop thinking about the rest of the story; I was expecting slapstick ala Charles Busch and instead found myself being very moved. The acting by all is superb and it gave me pleasure to watch the parents lose their rectitude and embrace the life they never lived before. This is definitely a comedy that will make you think. Forgiving the Franklins is a much needed reminder that spirituality is about how you celebrate life, and treat others, and not about being the first to cast stones while being oblivious to one's own sins.