Families band together out of love, necessity and tragedy. In the case of the Shank family, the focus of Netflix’s new documentary “Kingdom of Us,” they were forced to come together after one singular, catastrophic event — the suicide of their father, Paul Shanks, in 2007. Beside leaving his family — one son, two daughters and his wife, Vickie —with a chasm of loss, he left behind the inexplicable hurdles of trying to cope with death and preserve memories.
Director Lucy Cohen (“The Possibilities are Endless”) takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to her documentary, as she captures the Shanks’s day-to-day routines and struggles in an organic, unobstructed fashion. This approach, as well as using handheld cameras, is well-suited to the Shank family’s disorder in all aspects of their lives. Not only has Paul’s suicide left them with emotional chaos — not to mention 5 out of 7 of the hormone-buzzing Shank teenagers are on the autism spectrum — but his death also manifests in the family’s inability to clean up and move forward, which is evidenced in their home. Cohen accentuates Vickie’s hoarder tendencies, as she piles clothes and toys on top of trash and refuses to reduce the clutter. The physical disarray of the Shank home is conveniently so claustrophobic that it becomes emblematic of their emotional lives.
The documentary intersperses footage from present-day, as the Shanks continue to come to terms with Paul’s suicide, with real camcorder footage of the Shanks as children, taken by Paul himself. In this way, the audience gets an intimate glimpse into their world, filled with cozy family moments, like birthday parties and wedding videos, as well as a perspective on Paul’s role as a father. On one end, he was a larger-than life man with a zeal for adventure and the outdoors, and he inspired this energy into his children. Paul was typically the voice behind the camera as he let his children take center stage, but he always encouraged them to play and create. The Shank girls take after their father’s knack for music and rhythm and often made theatrical performances in their living room, and still do. Therefore Cohen is successful at capturing this kinetic, free spirit essence that the family had, and still has, but is now displaced and takes its shape in clutter. On the other hand, Paul’s nasty side is revealed through a note in which he wrote of planning to kill his family. Cohen edits this into the documentary in a sweet spot, where the audience already feels Paul’s magnetism and does not loathe him.
Cohen’s documentary triumphs in its ability to convey how losing a family member is a paradoxical experience — it is both collective, but also highly individual. Each Shank child has a different memory of what happened the day he died. Suicide on screen is a hot topic recently, particularly with discussion of how media portrayals fail to represent its nuances properly (Netflix was criticized for this in its series “13 Reasons Why”). Yet “Kingdom of Us” does a respectful, non-glamorous job of demonstrating that the process of grief is completely specific to the individual, and there is no “right” way to heal. Moreover, the Shanks, like many other families with a history of mental illness, fear for depression to reveal itself in some of its children, and the documentary helps make clear that getting help is not a taboo, but rather encouraged. Pippa, the youngest Shank, was only six when her father passed, and she is presented with depression and anorexia as she attempts to navigate her mourning. Pippa is an example for all children who have experienced parental loss that it is okay to not be okay.
“Kingdom of Us” takes a real, raw approach to mental health, and doesn’t sugar coat it behind the veneers of attractive protagonists. It does the opposite. It presents death as a never-ending healing process, which is precisely how the documentary closes, without catharsis. At first glance, it appears as though this ending was a cop out — that Cohen wasn’t decisive about how she wanted the film to end, so she left it open. But that's part of its strength. The ending is like life and death itself, filled with ambiguity and the unknown.