The family is a social unit, as well as an institution, which differs from person to person depending on their own experiences, personal biography, and life courses.  The movie entitled Smart People is about an English Professor, Lawrence, who is a depressed middle-aged widower; he is arrogant at work, uninterested in his students, and alienated from his two children, Vanessa and James.  Meanwhile, Lawrence suffers from a trauma-induced seizure after falling from the top of a fence while trying to get his briefcase from inside of his impounded car, he gets an unexpected visit from his adopted brother Chuck, and finds a new romantic interest with the doctor, who was a former student that he does not recall. 

 Vanessa and Lawrence share similar attitudes as they both estrange themselves from the outside world, and they both have to adopt different attitudes and risk further alienation in order to overcome their insecurity.  Lawrence and Janet go on a couple of dates in which she gets pregnant, while Lawrence is pre-occupied by his book publishing and an on-going campaign to become chairman of the English Department at the college, Janet is upset by his self-absorption and breaks up with him without telling him the news.  When they work things out, she discloses this information to him, and he becomes a more involved parent and professor.  This movie demonstrates many family relations that are similar as well as different to scholarly theories and observations of “the family” and family relations. 

 The Movie’s Depiction Of Family

This movie does not depict the traditional, nuclear family as there is no mother present and there is an adopted brother in the picture.  Previous scholars, such as Goode and Murdock defined the family as the basic institution of society which is a social and economic unit consisting of two adults of the opposite sex who shared economic resources, sexual intimacy, labour, accommodation, reproduction, and child rearing.  Perhaps before the mother had passed away the Wetherhold family represented a nuclear family; however, the movie depicts a family unit controversial.  According to Dave Popenoe, an American family sociologist, the family is becoming ill suited to serve its two most basic functions: rearing children and providing emotional sustenance to its members.  There is a scene in the movie where Lawrence finds out by James’s girlfriend Missy, that James had a poem accepted at The New Yorker.  This shows that Lawrence was not involved in his child’s interests as much as he should have been because he was caught up in his own issues.  Lawrence also was not aware of Vanessa’s early acceptance to Stanford University until Chuck had told him and explained to him that he is not involved in his children’s lives and should become more concerned with their actions.  It is through these scenes that the Wetherhold family depicts a family of diversity.     

 Symbolic Interactionism In Smart People

A theory which is represented in Smart People is symbolic interactionism, which is a theory of knowledge adopted by Herbert Blumer, and describes the process of interpersonal interactions and internal family interactions; the ongoing action and response of family members to one another.  Family interactions are a product of individuals acting, negotiating, and responding to one another as minded beings; these interactions are through gestures, symbols or words that have shared meaning.  An example of this theory shown in Smart People is how the daughter, Vanessa is the girl of the household, and has to take the role of the deceased mother.  In one scene, at the dinner table, James makes a comment to Vanessa about how she is role-playing the mother by taking care of the cooking and cleaning.  Furthermore, according to symbolic interactionist theorists, the family interprets meaning through interactions and that is how a person develops a sense of self; the family is a creation of its members as they spontaneously interact with one another in joint reaction.  When Vanessa gets accepted to Stanford, Chuck decides to take her out to celebrate; Vanessa gets the wrong idea and makes a pass at him, which he rejects.  This made him uncomfortable around her and he decides to sleep in James’s dorm a few nights a week, while he lies and says he is staying over his girlfriend’s house.  This depicts how the family members interact on a day to day basis, and how gestures and a different perceptive on a situation have different shared meanings. 

 The Movie Representing The Emergent Family

Additionally, Smart People represents the Emergent Family Theory: the life course perspective.  This theory promotes that an individual’s biography and history, and the intersections of these domains within the social structure can have a significant effect on the individual.  This theory deems that the family is perceived as a micro social group within a macro social context; a collection of individuals with shared history who interact within changing social contexts.  The Wetherhold family constantly endure obstacles which they have to overcome together; some include the loss of the wife/mother, Lawrence suffering from a seizure and needing constant assistance, Lawrence’s adopted brother Chuck coming to live in the house, and finally, the most affected, Lawrence seeing Janet and having a baby with her. This perspective is also concerned with how family lives are lived interdependently, as actions of one family member can affect the actions or circumstances of another.  For example, Vanessa does not appreciate Lawrence seeing Janet, and especially does not like it when Janet comes over for Christmas dinner with a cake unexpectedly.  Finally, this perspective focuses on lifelong developmental processes in the family. For instance transitions, whether short term or long term, have a major affect on individuals within the family unit; nevertheless, transitions are subject to reversal.  In the movie, Chuck and Vanessa take all of the deceased mother’s clothes and bring them to goodwill since they were collecting dust in the closet.  Lawrence did not appreciate this and went to goodwill to buy back all of her belongings.  This shows that Lawrence could not part from her even though Vanessa was able to; however, at the end of the move, after Lawrence decided to start living his life differently, he brings the clothes back to goodwill and finally parts from his wife since he has other commitments in his life.  It is ironic because Chuck is the person who helps Lawrence change his attitudes when at the beginning, Lawrence tried to refuse his help.

 To Sum It Up

To conclude, Smart People is an interesting movie to watch and relate to course material because there are many different relationships involved and can also easily be analyzed in comparison to scholarly theories.  The Wetherhold family does not demonstrate the traditional, nuclear family as it does fit in to the definition of a husband, wife, and children sharing a household without any other adults present.  Nevertheless, it does represent a family unit depicted through theoretical perspectives such as Symbolic Interactionism which studies day-to-day interactions, role-playing, perceptions and joint action.   As well as the Emergent Family Theory: the life course perspective which focuses on counter-transitions, social timetables, diversity and cumulative advantages and disadvantages.  Overall, this essay has critically analyzed how the film, Smart People presents “the family” and family relations in ways that are similar and different compared to how contemporary scholars theorize and observe “the family” and family relations.