Moussa (Sami Bouajila) is an easygoing fella. He’s a go-along-to-get-along, the rug that everyone walks on that really ties the room together. When his large and rambunctious family gathers to bicker and break bread, the twice-divorced father of three will smile when his siblings and adult children hit new decibels arguing in the gladiatorial arena that is the dinner table. If steps into verbal battle, it’s to apologize to or for someone else, and always to lower the stakes.
He’s just that kind of guy – until he’s not. This boisterous Franco-Moroccan clan is thrown for a loop when family rock Moussa suffers a traumatic brain injury, turning him into a wholly different man. Where once he was accommodating, this altered father and brother now suffers no fools. The infirm Moussa now speaks without a filter, calling out the brood that built their own adult lives on his indulgence.
Playing a long game of before-and-after, Roschdy Zem’s “Our Ties” holds one family dynamic against another transformed by Moussa’s injury and tracks the toll on each member of the clan. Premiering in Venice, Roschdy Zem’s “Our Ties” is a fitfully charming odd duck of a film. A health drama that could (and sometimes does) just as easily play as a tearjerker or broad comedy, the slight movie spreads itself thin to track the family fallout when a quiet foundation crumbles.
The middle-aged Moussa is juggling heartbreak when we first meet him: His second wife up and left, leaving no forwarding address or explanation. But Moussa is the stoic sort and when it comes time to celebrate his youngest daughter’s birthday, he sits at the head of the table to observe and absorb his family’s cacophony. They include his two adult children, Amir (Carl Malapa) and daddy’s girl Nesrine (Nina Zem – the director’s own daughter) and then there are his four siblings, including older brothers Adil (Abel Jafri) and Salah (Rachid Bouchareb) and sister Samia (Meriem Serbah).
But the star – in this family and in this film – is famous sportscaster Ryad (played by Zem himself). Ryad knows as much, carrying himself with the haughty air of a man who has risen above his (familial) peers. He’s the one they go to for favors – to profit from his wealth, to bask in his star glow. His presence at such gatherings comes with no small part of noblesse oblige.
Zem is the César and Cannes-winning star of Arnaud Desplechin’s “Oh Mercy!” and this is sixth film as a director. He shoots with an actor’s instinct, burrowing into the moment, letting scenes burble and build and bubble over with (barely) controlled chaos. Actor and filmmaker Maïwenn is this project’s key artistic collaborator, with the “My King” and “DNA” director serving as co-writer and co-star, playing Ryad’s exasperated spouse Emma.
Like the couple on screen, the actor-directors complement each other. Zem builds on Maiwenn’s signature style, turning rote interactions into roller-coasters of emotion and inflection within a mercurial group dynamic, while damping her over-the-top excesses.
Meriem Serbah is entirely believable as the family’s lone sister-turned-makeshift matriarch, but the film doesn’t have much time for her perspective. Instead, Zem gradually seizes the spotlight to play an abstracted version of himself – a massive star and magnetic presence forced to make room for the supporting players in his own life. That this so-called family drama ultimately winnows into a tale of Ryad’s personal growth is somewhat offset by Bouajila’s ace performance as Moussa, which finds the ever-versatile actor playing both comedy and pathos.
You can easily see Steve Carell playing a version of this character in glossy studio comedy. (Do they still make those?) Except for a handful of sequences detailing Moussa’s painful divorce, this is rarely a weighty film. Moussa’s newly loosened tongue often provides ample comic fodder, breaking up the melodrama in simple scenes that find him upending the long-settled family dynamic.
More of a concept in search of a single, stable form, “Our Ties” charms in the moment without leaving much of a mark. For all its cacophony, Zem’s film feels underdeveloped and incomplete – running out of steam at the 90-minute mark, it ends abruptly with an extended cinematic shrug and turnsg up the feel-good-tunes to get you toe-tapping out of the theater.
Perhaps there was no better method: Families are messy, life is chaotic, and resolutions aren’t tidy. In a roundabout way, Zem owns the contradiction, making a film that feels smaller than the unruly family it depicts. “Our Ties” invites you to spend time at the table with a wholly believable clan, and then abruptly sees you out. You can still hear them, bellowing and bickering, long after the film fades.
“Our Ties” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.