The Appeal of Ensemble Films

Let’s start at the very basics, shall we? Although the term ‘ensemble film’ may be somewhat unfamiliar, their concept and structure are widely recognisable. These are films centred around half a dozen characters instead of one protagonist. I’m not talking about action films like Justice League or The Avengers, nor am I talking about big Hollywood productions with their impressive array of A-list actors. In fact, quite the contrary. I’m talking about the often low-budget, indie films featuring not-so-famous actors and made by not-so-recognised directors.

These films usually follow around five to ten seemingly random and unconnected characters who end up being linked together in the most unexpected of ways. There is always a single spine story or common theme linking these different character storylines together. Take Nashville or Diner for example. Or Gosford Park and Short Cuts, from the great architect of ensemble films himself: Robert Altman. And if you’re more of a rom-com type of person (I don’t blame you), films such as New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and Love Actually also make the cut. Two films that define the genre are The Big Chill and The Breakfast Club.

Something they teach you in film school is that every character in every story has a want and a need. The same applies to an ensemble film; every character has their own individual goals and objectives, but the interesting thing that ties them together is that they often share a common need. Take John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, for example. Although the characters may have strikingly different wants, they share the common need of finding compassion and friendship in each other. Some of them achieve their ‘wants’ and others don’t, but they all come out of that detention different than when they went in.

John Hughes’s work is often praised for understanding and representing the American teenager of the 1980s. If you can name a filmmaker whose work more accurately depicts the collective teenage angst of the 1980s, let me know. In a 1999 interview, he stated, “My generation had sucked up so much attention, and here were these kids struggling for an identity. They were forgotten.” The Breakfast Club was more of a statement than anything else; Hughes wanted to put these characters on the big screen and making an ensemble film was the perfect way to do so.

These types of films can serve as a time capsule of an entire generation. Because they often aren’t plot-driven, the way that the characters are portrayed (how they speak, their body language, their jokes and even their clothes) becomes the centre of attention, often carrying the story forward. So although most of these ensemble films never had a huge theatrical release or made millions at the box office, the fact that they can become markers for a generation elevates them to a whole new level of cinematic praise. In the same way that The Breakfast Club represents the typical ’80s teenager, The Big Chill will probably go down as the ultimate hangout film of the ’60s generation, or as they’re referred to these days, the beloved baby boomers.

Often described as a serious comedy that inspired many reunion films to follow, The Big Chill centres around seven friends who went to university together and reunite for the funeral of one of their mutuals. One of the most emblematic parts of this film (as is often the case with ensemble films) is the opening title sequence where all the characters are briefly introduced. Set to the iconic soundtrack of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” we are given snippets of all these insanely different characters and can’t help but wonder what on earth unites them. Five minutes into the film, you’ll quickly realise that their friend’s funeral plays little part in the story other than simply being a pretext for them to come together and essentially have a wee little weekend-long chat about life. All the film is really about is a group of friends hanging out and talking about the difficulties of growing up and having responsibilities after university.

Writer and director Lawrence Kasdan based most of the film around his own experience as a student at the University of Michigan. Doing so added to the film a much-needed authenticity because apart from having iconic opening titles, these ensemble films require an extremely well-written script considering they heavily rely on dialogue to carry the story forwards. It’s no surprise that The Big Chill was nominated for three Oscars and won the Writer’s Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay.

In an ensemble film, there is no great merit in writing a hugely complicated script with twists, turns and surprise endings. Instead, creating a bunch of really intriguing and multi-layered characters becomes the ultimate goal. However, because these characters need to be fleshed out in a matter of minutes, these films (perhaps more than any other genre) sometimes rely on stereotypes. But what would normally be considered a flaw is worked into ensemble films as an advantage because the stereotypes introduced at the beginning seem to have been used for the sole purpose of being debunked and deconstructed by the end of the film. In the final scene of The Breakfast Club, the five students leave a note to the principal where they refer to themselves as the criminal, the princess, the athlete, the brain and the basket case. But by that point, in the story, these labels have become completely arbitrary.

The biggest appeal of these films, however, is that they somehow manage to keep audiences engaged when all we’re really shown is some friends just hanging out. Essentially nothing happens, and yet, they work. In fact, they work incredibly well. It comes to a point in these films where you just start seeing the characters as your own friends as if you know them enough to feel like part of their inner circle. To make every audience member feel like they belong with those half a dozen characters on screen is pretty powerful if you ask me. It’s almost as if we as viewers are given exclusive access to a collage of inside jokes of a tight-knit friendship group. These films are not spectacles, they’re hang out, get-to-know-these-characters-until-they-become-your-friends type of films. They have an unusually calm and laid-back feel to them that seems rare these days, almost as if the fast-paced, money-making machine that is Hollywood doesn’t have the time or space for them anymore. But boy oh boy, I wish they did.