Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 01, 2017 4:30 pm 
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Going non-traditional

One can understand why there are two directors of Ekvtimishvili and Gross's My Happy Fmily. There's a lot of complicated people-wrangling going on here. First of all in the family of Manana, a middle-aged schoolteacher (singer and stage actress Ia Shugliashvili), who do a lot of vociferous squabbling in the crowded, noisy Tbilisi flat all seven of them inhabit. It's fun to watch - until maybe it isn't any more. This is rather like a play, at first anyway. It also "opens up," and most impressive perhaps is Manana's encounter with an old school friend in a local market, the way people keep pushing through them and by them and crowding around them. It's a fine bit of choreography. If New Directors/New Films had an Ensemble Acting prize, My Happy Family would be a prime contender. (This wrangling reminded me of Asghar Farhadi's in The Salesman.)

The second reason why it's good two people directed this film: they're a couple, and this is basically a story about couples - Manana and Soso (Merab Ninidze), their daughter an her husband, and their son and the young pregnant bride he surprises everybody with later on.

Manana and Soso live with her family, which she's sick of (and we can see why). They consist of her querulous and bossy mother (Berta Khapava), her brother, her grandfather, her husband, son Lasha (Giorgi Tabidze) and daughter Nino (Tsisia Qumsashvili) and daughter's husband, augmented on occasion by aunts, uncles and other relatives, as needed. The big squabbles concern Manana's decision to move into a cheap apartment on her own, leaving her husband and all the rest, but the squabbles themselves show us why Manana would want to take this liberating step. It's not that she can't get along with her husband. She can't breathe.

Her departure is against the wishes of everyone over 25. But it's a foregone conclusion we're aware of from the first scene, when she views a sunny if shabby flat in an unfashionable but quiet neighborhood. The price is right, and the decision is made. The objections confirm its validity. But will Manana stay with this decision? Will the tomatoes she plants on the balcony bear fruit? Stay tuned - though the film ends with a question mark, as it should. The conflicts here depicted between traditional and nuclear families, couples and independence, aren't easily resolved.

This is Georgia, where the language has a special lilt, and where any festive gathering means people will sing, in a rich, resonant chorus. The most interesting chapter comes when Manana meets that old friend in the market, who's got her own farm and sells cheese. She tells about a reunion of their school, 35 years out. At this reunion Manana gets some surprise news that deeply upsets her. Though she's in a state, she's prevailed upon to sing for everyone. It's beautiful, and it relates so well to the news she's just gotten this begins to seem a little like a musical. The long takes with ensemble squabbling, the ensemble singing, the surprises, the boisterous well-wrangled small crowds: these are the charms of My Happy Family. The new apartment is nicely conveyed, with sunlight, open doors onto the balcony, Manana sitting quietly (or cleaning up the mess) and listening to Mozart. Scenes of Manana at school are few, but help flesh things out: one session with a girl who's missed classes, and turns out to have left her young husband, is an obvious parallel and link to Manana's departure. All these are aspects of this film's good staging and construction.

Its defects? None really, except that the ending is a little underwhelming (as Jordan Minzer said in his Hollywood Reporter review), and that it is a little too long. After a while it feels like this is, or ought to have been, a miniseries; or, that to be a well made film it needed better editing. It is best in its individual scenes, but some of the less necessary ones could have been shortened or cut out.

My Happy Family/Chemi bednieri ojakhi, 120 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2017, then played at the Berlinale. It was screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-Museum of Modern Art series, New Directors/New Films 1 Mar. 2017. Released 10 May 2017 in France as Une famille heureuse to excellent reviews - AlloCiné critic rating 3.6. English language reviews are raves - Metacritic rating 86%.

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