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The famous George Burns quote that “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city” is literally put into practice by the heroine of Georgian directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’ perceptive and endearing second feature, about a 52-year-old mother who changes her life by moving out of the house. It’s a simple, somewhat mundane scenario that, in the hands of a terrific cast and two talented filmmakers, is transformed into a minor Greek comic-tragedy, with one fearless woman trying to stave off loved ones who smother her with guilt and affection.
Premiering in Sundance’s World Dramatic competition before screening at the Berlinale Forum, the film should find takers in co-producing countries France and Germany, with additional slots in select territories – including the U.S., where the duo’s prizewinning feature debut, In Bloom, received limited distribution back in 2014.
Reminiscent of Romanian New Wave dramas like Cristi Puiu’s recent Sieranevada, the ironically titled My Happy Family (Chemi Bednieri Ojakhi) takes a low-key, immersive approach to the travails of Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), a schoolteacher who lives with her parents, husband and grown-up children in a crowded apartment in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. From the first time we see her at home, where she’s encircled by feckless kids and a nagging mother (Berta Khapava) who makes the one in Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks seem like a model of restraint in comparison, it’s clear that Manana suffers from genealogical overkill and needs a break.
She finds a way out by renting a modest two-room flat in another part of town, leaving her mom’s house without offering so much as a simple explanation to her husband, Soso (Merab Ninidze), a man of few words with whom she seems to have a thorny relationship. Meanwhile, her daughter, Nino (Tsisia Qumsashvili) and son, Lasha (Giorgi Tabidze), seem to accept Manana’s decision – or are otherwise too caught up in their own lives to care – while her mother fights tooth and nail to keep her home.
Shooting in uninterrupted takes with direct sound and no additional score, Nana & Simon (as the directors call themselves) initially plunge us into the loud and turbulent household from which Manana hopes to escape, with an early table scene reminiscent of – to cite Woody Allen again – the boisterous dinner scene flashback in Annie Hall. It’s nearly impossible to escape company inside crammed living quarters that are constantly filled with visiting family members and friends, and Manana can’t even get clothing out of the closet without upsetting her daughter and causing a ruckus.
When she finally moves out, she seems to be breathing the air of freedom for the first time, and the filmmakers contrast the earlier scenes of collective chaos with ones of Manana sitting alone in her quiet new living room with the window open, or else listening to a Mozart piano sonata as the sun goes down. Gradually, we learn that she once had a life of her own before giving it all up for the family, and when an old schoolmate invites her to a class reunion, she reveals herself to be a passionate singer and guitar player, belting out a love song that nearly brings her friends to tears.
For her first role in a feature movie, Shugliashvili offers up a movingly restrained performance that slowly but surely bears its fruits as Manana’s decision winds up having a few third-act repercussions, though not necessarily negative ones. Indeed, the closing reels of My Happy Family may seem a bit underwhelming considering all the build-up, though Nana and Simon are less concerned with dramatic tension than with conveying Manana’s ongoing struggles to escape the crushing onslaught of traditional domesticity, especially in a country and culture where people rarely stray far from home.
Alongside the strong ensemble cast, including Ninidze as a husband who’s conspicuously silent about his wife’s behavior, superb camerawork by Tudor Vladimir Panduru (Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation) involves lots of complex staging in tight quarters, with characters popping out from all angles like zombies assailing a lone woman under siege. There is truly no privacy to be found in a crowded house, and as Manana’s soon learns at a certain price, perhaps the best solution in such cases is to become a family of one.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Production company: Augenschein Filmproduktion
Cast: Ia Shugliashvili, Merab Ninidze, Berta Khapava, Tsisia Qumsashvili, Giorgi Khurtsilava, Giorgi Tabidze, Goven Cheishvili, Dimitri Oragvelidze
Directors: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Gross
Screenwriter: Nana Ekvtimishvili
Producers: Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo, Simon Gross
Director of photography: Tudor Vladimir Panduru
Production designer: Kote Japharidze
Costume designer: Medea Bakradze
Editor: Stefan Stabenow
Casting director: Leli Miminoshvili
Sales: Memento Films International
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