‘Family Life’ (‘Vida de Familia’): Film Review | Sundance 2017

Family Life Sundance Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Sundance

Family Life Sundance Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017

A sharply observed and poignant parable.

Two high-profile Chilean directors come together for a minor-key drama about a man in search of a family to love.

Abandoning the relatively large scale of earlier outings, festival-friendly Chilean directors Alicia Scherson and Cristian Jimenez return to the smaller canvas with Family Life, a witty and poignant drama about an emotionally damaged man who tries to set up a virtual family life in another family’s home. Rippling playfully into themes of solitude, love, companionship and the multiple dangers of male insecurity, this is quietly intriguing fare that rolls up wryness, poignancy and intimacy into a minor key but memorable whole. Its high concept and universal themes suggest that as with helmers' previous work, happy future cohabitation with the festival circuit is likely for Family Life following its screening in Sundance's World Dramatic section.

Like Jimenez’s Bonsai, Family Life is adapted by Alejandro Zambra from his own work. The early scenes are a smartly-sketched study of life as lived by any 30-something family with a young child; the honeymoon is now definitely over for Consuelo (high-profile Chilean actress Blanca Lewin) and Bruno (Cristian Carvajal), and though they’re happy enough, the cracks are beginning to show — most clearly in, for example, the hate message to them scribbled onto a wall by their young daughter. The typical obsessions of the modern family — teeth, concern about being overheard during sex — are gently satirized.

On the eve of their departure for Paris, Bruno and Consuelo turn over the house to Bruno’s distant cousin, 40-ish Martin (Jorge Becker), a weird and sullen figure who is depressed following the loss of his father. Martin is also lonely, and inappropriately tries to kiss Consuelo, who rejects his advances. But he’s a good-looking, leather-jacket wearing kind of guy, and she finds that Martin has unexpectedly moved her.

The family gone, Martin slowly explores their unfamiliar world and turns their house into his home, which includes, poignantly, replacing a photo on the wall with one of Consuelo. (Despite its generally wry, ironic tone, such poignancy is never far from the film's surface.) The family cat also disappears, and Martin sets out to find it, but what he finds instead is Pachi (Gabriela Arancibia), a straight-talking single mother who’s lost her dog. Martin falsely tells her that this is his home, and that he’s been abandoned by his wife and child, setting in motion a pretense that must be maintained. Before too long, they’re lovers, and soon, driven by their mutual loneliness, they have become like a virtual family, living a family life in another family’s home, built on the fragile foundations of Martin’s lie. But on the upside, what they suddenly have is a virtual family life with all the bad bits removed.

As a scenario, it’s perfect for comedy, but the script is absolutely not interested in playing it for laughs, which means that sometimes comic opportunities are missed. It’s far more interested in what is happening emotionally, and what is happening to Martin and Pachi is that they’re suddenly free to enter a romantic and sexual idyll, liberating and joyous — one which is, of course, nothing like the real “family life” of the title and which, it’s suggested, must end when the family returns from Paris. But of course the idyll doesn’t necessarily have to end, and there will be much post-screening debate among viewers about this, following the film’s affecting, complex conclusion.

Family Life is full of moments of quiet, elegant observation — the fact that the cat (cats know the truth about everything) quietly returns now that there’s a family in the house again is wonderful, as is the way that Martin mimics the behavior of Bruno’s family as he plays with Pachi’s child. The role of the interestingly weird and complex Martin is difficult, and Becker judges it well — though the fact that he’s clearly the victim of some serious (but undefined) psychological issues means he remains just a little elusive, to the viewer as to the other characters. But crucially to the film’s dramatic impact, we never judge Martin negatively for his deceit, and his insecurities keep him engaging.

By counterpoint, Pachi is given a refreshing directness by Arancibia. Lewin, meanwhile, rounds out her role wonderfully well, given that she’s only onscreen at the beginning and end: Pachi and Consuelo remind us, despite its focus on Martin, that this is just as much a film about women’s insecurities as about men's.

Shot mostly in Scherson’s own apartment, Family Life has a wonderful sense of intimate space, so that by the end the viewer feels that even though they haven’t been a part of Martin’s family, at least they’ve been a guest in his home. Slow, revealing tracking shots around the interiors are the order of the day, with some stylishly handled transition shots among the film’s few concessions to look-at-me stylishness. Pacing is best described as carefully attentive, though occasionally it drags — there are a couple too many frenzied bed scenes through the film’s middle stretch. Excerpts from Beethoven and Bach are used to good effect earlier on, giving way later — at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum — to the thrash metal of Pentagram's 'Demonaic Possession' and on-TV scenes from Molina's Ferroz, Jorge Molina's 2010 cult horror take on 'Little Red Riding Hood', an altogether darker take on family life.

Production company: Peso Pluma, Sagrado Cine
Cast:Jorge Becker, Gabriela Arancibia, Blanca Lewin, Cristian Carvajal
Directors: Alicia Scherson, Cristian Jimenez
Screenwriter: Alejandro Zambra, Alicia Scherson, Cristian Jimenez
Producers: Carlos Olivares, Fernando Bascunan
Director of photography: Cristian Petit-Laurent
Editor: Soledad Salfate
Production designer: Jorge Zambrano
Costume designer: Javiera Espinosa
Composers: Caroline Chaspoul, Eduardo Henriquez
Sales: Visit Films

No rating, 81 minutes