‘My Happy Family’ Review: A Wife and Mother Escapes Her Trap — Sundance 2017

The directors of "In Bloom" return with the story of a middle-aged woman who escapes her boring life.
my happy family
"My Happy Family"

It doesn’t take long to realize that the title of the Georgian drama “My Happy Family” is ironic. Directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Grob plunge into the restless lifestyle of 52-year-old Manana (Ia Shuvliashvili), the matriarch of a cramped and multigenerational household that includes her husband, grown children, parents and various in-laws who pull her from every angle. And it doesn’t take long for Mañana to realize that to escape the mayhem, much to the shock of everyone around her, she can simply move out.

The ease with which she embarks on this new stage, even as it baffles her entire community, speaks to the remarkable blend of comedy and sadness that characterizes this sophomore effort from the directors of “In Bloom.” It’s at once a celebration of individuality and its potential to unnerve those who resist it.

Manana’s life is defined by routine. She’s a pinball in her apartment, bouncing from one whiny relative to the next, finding only a modicum of respite at the local school where she teaches. It’s there that she learns one of her students just got divorced, which gets Manana thinking maybe she needs to do the same thing. It’s a credit to the subtlety of Ekvtimishvili and Grob’s screenplay that her decision doesn’t stem from a major brawl. When her husband throws her a birthday party she doesn’t want, inviting a bunch of his friends over to drink, her mind’s made up: She’s out of there.

In response, all anyone can do is tell her she’s wrong. Her wily mother hurtles one shrill indictment after another, while the rest of the clan bemoan their own issues, which seem to get worse each time Manana returns from her nearby apartment to check in. In one amusing highlight, her father complains that he’s survived multiple oppressive regimes only to get hit in the nuts during a domestic dispute among younger relatives.

As a whole, Manana’s rowdy family recall the similarly tradition-bound complainers of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” minus the cheekiness and with a lot more allegiance to the Christian Orthodox Church. The assumption of wisdom behind their ways sets the stage for a series of ridiculous exchanges. When Manana’s relatives sit her down with older members of her community in a last-ditch attempt to get her to stay, their presence is explained in blunt terms: “There are elderly people here. They might say something wise.” They don’t.

Manana’s decision to buck the religious expectations of women in her community gives “My Happy Family” an enlightening feminist streak, which owes much to its central performance. With only a few credits to her name, Shugliashvili turns in a wonderfully textured character who seethes with anger but never erupts. The rest of her family avoids caricature, with her good-natured husband Soso (Merab Ninidze) standing out for the way he expresses genuine concern for his wife while struggling to comprehend her frustrations; later, he reenters her life under new terms, in a twist that suggests the Georgian answer to fluffy studio romances of the “It’s Complicated” variety, but far more nuanced in its implications.

Other relatives show they care for her in wildly miscalculated acts of desperation, particularly her brother Rezo (Dimitri Oragveldze), who sends goons to look after her. Manana’s enlightened sense of self strikes everyone as a malady. “You make problems out of nothing,” says one relative when Manana refuses to justify her decision, and she doesn’t debate the point so much as set it aside; no argument can salvage her from preordained judgement.

“My Happy Family” was shot by Romanian cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru (who also did Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation”), and recalls many of the strengths found in recent Romanian cinema, which often peers into the hectic personal dramas of characters who are smothered by social expectations. The story is laced with lovely melodies and traditional songs that play off Manana’s internal desperation; the camera roams freely around her in crowded scenes that show just how much the groupthink alienates her from her own needs. One brilliant tracking shot finds her walking away from gossiping women and straight into a roomful of men singing a religious tune, making it clear that there’s no safe place where she can simply be herself.

For the most part, “My Happy Family” hovers in Manana’s conundrum; trapped between her matriarchal sense of responsibility and personal need, her situation doesn’t build to much beyond the initial setup over the course of two hours, and the anti-climactic finale falls short. But that gap in clarity speaks to the underlying power of “My Happy Family”: even as actions speak louder than words, they don’t really make things better.

Grade: A-

“My Happy Family” premiered in the World Narrative Competition section at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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