You can’t choose the family you’re born into. And for many of us, that means siblings. If you’ve got them, you’ll probably go through a number of phases with them, from bickering to closeness and maybe then coming around full circle to bickering again.
And of course, being adults with your siblings is different from when you were kids. Sibling rivalries pass from jealousy over toys and the best bedroom to career and status envy. There are aging parents to be cared for. And for siblings who weren’t even close growing up, is there really a point to staying in touch just because you share DNA?
These ten films give a little insight into the realities of reaching adulthood with brothers and sisters, and navigating relationships with the same people who used to pull your hair and short-sheet your bed.
10 The Savages (2007)
Partially estranged siblings John (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) have an uneasy reunion at the funeral of the long-time girlfriend of their father (from whom they are fully estranged). As their father (Phillip Bosco) suddenly finds himself with nowhere to live and the siblings realize he is rapidly succumbing to dementia, they decide to get him into a nursing home in Buffalo, where professor John lives, and not-very-successful playwright Wendy moves there from New York City to help. It becomes clear that the family’s estrangement and continued emotional stagnation (neither sibling is in a very promising relationship) is due to childhood emotional abuse from their father and a mother who left them.
Don’t expect cheerfulness, this is definitely a black comedy. But the lovely and tender performances from Hoffman and Linney also ensure that the characters, while prickly, are also endearing.
9 Your Sister’s Sister (2011)
The late, great director Lynn Shelton had this to say about the inspiration for her 2011 film: “Everybody has had that experience of going back home for Thanksgiving and starting to act ten years old again because they’re in the same situation with their parents and their siblings.” The siblings in question in the film are Iris (Emily Blunt) and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt). Hannah, a newly single lesbian, is staying in their father’s cabin unbeknownst to Iris, who has told her struggling friend Jack that he could stay there. The two end up getting along, getting drunk, and sleeping together, which Jack tells Hannah to keep from Iris.
It’s when Iris arrives that the drama ramps up: she tells Hannah that she’s in love with Jack, and Jack realizes that Hannah poked holes in the condom they used because she wants a baby. The movie is ostensibly a romantic comedy, but it’s also about sisters wrestling with more grownup problems than they used to.
8 The Skeleton Twins (2014)
Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) are twins with such a strong bond that even though they haven’t seen each other in a decade, when Maggie gets the call that Milo has attempted suicide, she was about to do the same herself. Milo goes to stay with Maggie and her husband, who she has been cheating on, in their hometown, and comes back into contact with the high school English teacher he had sex with when he was his student. Both of the twins are incredibly unhappy, and although there is some relief that comes with sharing their secrets with each other, the problems don’t disappear, and they angrily lash out, each blaming the other for a variety of things that aren’t really their fault.
Maggie and Milo are both deeply flawed characters, but Wiig and Hader bring to life a remarkable, if weird, sibling bond that helps them save each other, at least for the time being.
7 Knives Out (2019)
Nothing brings out the worst in siblings like the fear that a parent’s will favors one over the other(s). Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is murdered after his 85th birthday party, and when a private detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), shows up to find out who did the deed, he finds a very fractured family all hoping to win big in the will.
When it turns out that the vast estate has been left to Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), two of the angriest family members are Harlan’s children, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Walt (Michael Shannon), having both spent their lives (and ‘careers’, as a real estate mogul and publishing executive, respectively) enjoying the benefits of nepotism. Some siblings get to adulthood still hell-bent on making sure their brother or sister never gets more than their fair share.
6 Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Family drama hit the roof in Woody Allen’s 1986 classic about three sisters: Hannah (Mia Farrow), Lee (Barbara Hershey), and Dianne Wiest (Holly). Playing out over two years and mostly at Thanksgiving parties, the plot proceeds thusly: Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine) has an affair with Lee, and while Lee ends things with her older lover Frederick (Max Von Sydow), Elliot can’t make the same break with Hannah. Hannah’s ex, Mickey (Woody Allen), goes on a terrible date with Holly after his marriage to Hannah fails, but after a health scare and a suicide attempt, date two goes much better.
Holly is a failed actress who’s every attempt at a career seems to fail when she decides to try her hand at writing, and her plan to write a script about Hannah’s marriage that could blow up any number of family secrets is met with trepidation on all sides.
5 The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
Real-life brothers Beau and Jeff Bridges played Frank and Jack Baker, who have been playing the piano in a double act for 15 years. The act is getting stale, though, and Jack in particular is tiring of gigs that aren’t getting them anywhere, on top of an unsatisfying social life. But he’s skeptical when his brother insists they hire a singer to join the act. Neither brother is quite prepared for the arrival of Susie (Michelle Pfeiffer), an ex-escort whose addition enlivens the act to the point of scheduling more prestigious gigs for more money.
As soon as Jack and Susie begin some tentative flirting, Frank tells Jack he can’t take it any further, in case it might ruin the new-found success of the trio. Jack doesn’t listen, and sure enough, once he and Susie introduce romance into the relationship, the trio falls apart. Jack and Frank get into a fistfight, but it ends up clearing the air, and Jack finally starts a solo career while Frank decides to teach piano lessons. Sometimes all you need is a little less togetherness.
4 Crimes of the Heart (1986)
What do three sisters do when one of them, Babe (Sissy Spacek), shoots her violent husband? They retreat to the family farm in Mississippi, where they wrangle with their difficult pasts and dysfunctional family tree, which includes heavy doses of sibling rivalry. Lenny (Diane Keaton) is lonely, bemoaning the fact that she is single with no children, having stayed at home to care for their grandfather, and Meg (Jessica Lange) is a self-centered failure whose breakdown derailed a Hollywood career, so it’s possible that Babe isn’t even the worst off of the three. It all goes the way of many a family reunion: a lot of happiness, but with a lot of long-standing resentment underneath.
3 You Can Count on Me (2000)
Laura Linney was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar as single mother Sammy in Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed 2000 drama. Sammy lives a quiet, responsible life in the Catskills with her son Rudy (Rory Culkin). She and her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) were orphaned as children, and Terry drifts in and out of her life, in and out of jobs and relationships, but when Terry shows up out of the blue, both she and Rudy are excited.
Rudy and Terry start to form a close bond, but neither Sammy nor Terry seem able to maintain relationships in the way that they would like. Linney, Ruffalo, and Culkin all turn in poignant performances, and the film underlines the fact that every family comes with its own difficulties, and that you can either learn to work with them or let it all go.
2 Rain Man (1988)
Barry Levinson’s 1988 movie about two brothers was the most successful film of the year financially, and it swept up the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), and Best Original Screenplay Oscars that year. Tom Cruise was surprisingly effective as Charlie Babbitt, a materialistic egomaniac who finds that his estranged father has left the bulk of his large estate to an older brother Charlie didn’t know he had, since he’d been committed to an asylum for many years.
Autistic savant Raymond (Hoffman) won’t get on a plane to LA with Charlie, so the movie turns into a road trip movie as the two brothers get to know each other. The trip is funny, awkward, difficult, and utterly transforms both Charlie’s and Raymond’s lives.
1 Summer Hours (2008)
Acclaimed French director Olivier Assayas turned his attention to family dynamics in this story of three adult siblings, Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) whose elderly mother passes away, leaving a sizable estate including valuable artworks handed down to her by her uncle.
The siblings are torn about what to do: Frédéric thinks they should keep the house in the family, as well as the objects which represent so many childhood memories. Adrienne and Jérémie both live abroad and have no use for a French country house, preferring instead to pick out one or two things to keep before the rest is sold. It’s an unusually clear-eyed, critically-acclaimed look at family, mortality, and memory.