Returning to your childhood home as an adult can be a triggering experience full of embarrassing memories and unresolved conflict. But the experience is even stranger when a strict parent is all of the sudden nice and giving. What the heck is going on here?
In Dealing with Dad those two challenges take center stage, as three siblings return to their parents’ Milpitas home to help the patriarch acknowledge that he needs help and shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for it.
Writer and director Tom Huang based the story on his own experience, working with family and friends to help lift his father out of depression over the course of eight years. In the film, that timeline is truncated to just a few months.
“Most of that time was just trying to get people to understand what depression is, as well as myself,” he says. “It’s not just an emotion that goes away…in many immigrant cultures and families, depression is looked at as a stigma and a weakness. I wanted to tell this kind of story to get people to take the first step.”
Huang’s third feature film explores just that over its 106-minute runtime, drawing the viewer in with the talented cast’s immense humor and care for the story.
Middle-child Margaret (performed exquisitely by comedian Ally Maki) leads the charge to help her father, bringing along reluctant older brother Roy (Peter Kim) to travel back to the East Bay and address the situation head-on. Unemployed younger brother Larry (Hayden Szeto) is already living at the family home and is at first hesitant to help in the situation—isn’t Dad (Dana Lee) nicer now, offering us money to get food and not being judgmental?
But those changes aren’t akin to anything the three siblings dealt with previously—and prove even further just how much they need to work together to help their father get back to his normal, gruff self. It takes time, of course (more than Margaret may care to admit), but each of the siblings learns more about their family and themselves as they spend time trying to find a solution for their father.
While Dealing with Dad does focus primarily on addressing depression head-on, Huang also wanted to explore family dynamics and the ebbs and flows of those relationships. The siblings are adults in their thirties, yet each one reverts to their child or teenage self in returning to the family home.
Further, the conversations between the siblings and mom Sophie (Page Leong) give humor to those minute frustrations, such as leaving the front door unlocked or buying a box of month-old pastries because they’re $1.
“A lot of the actors brought their own characters and personalities to the film, which is why I think a lot of people have connected with it,” Huang says. “People like these characters, they like these actors. Each of the actors understands how dysfunctional this family is and can bring more to it themselves.”
Other comedians punch up the story as well, including Margaret’s husband (Echo Kellum), Larry’s love interest (Megan Gailey) and Margaret’s high school boyfriend and friend (Karan Soni). Huang turned to comedians primarily in his casting choices, to keep a sense of lightness throughout, despite the often difficult subject matter.
“I was really blessed to find all of these funny people,” he says, noting that 25% of the script ended up being improv at the behest of the actors. “We got some really great stuff from that, and that was so much fun to watch…they understood the situation and the characters really well.”
The film, which has already gained critical acclaim at indie festivals across the country, will be available for Cinequest attendees for two showings, on Aug. 19 and 22. Huang is excited to see the audience’s response this time around, his 25th viewing with an audience.
“It’s always amazing to see their reaction—I think people have connected with this functional/dysfunctional family, and feel like they’ve seen and been a part of it before.”
Screens at 7pm on Aug 19 and 4:15pm on Aug 22 at California Theatre, San Jose.