My Happy Family
Directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross
There are few things more terrifying than being asked “How have you lived your life?” while in the midst of living one’s life. In the new Georgian film My Happy Family, that question is asked, implicitly and explicitly, of a number of characters. The story focuses largely on one woman’s attempt to free herself of the shackles of a stultifying marriage, but a subdued sense of panic courses throughout, infecting everyone else: This is a movie about obligations, and about what-might-have-beens and what-could-still-bes. Directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross — who work together as Nana & Simon, and who directed the lovely coming-of-age film In Bloom a couple of years ago — My Happy Family is not only the best film of Sundance so far, but it’s likely to be one of the best films of the year.
It opens on 52-year-old literature teacher Manana (Ia Sgugliashvili) checking out a rental apartment in a working-class corner of Tbilisi. We soon learn that she has decided to leave her husband, her two grown kids, and her mom and dad – all of whom live crammed under the same roof – to go find a quiet place for herself, a space where she can sit by a window, relax, read a book, and eat some cake, free of the responsibilities and sacrifices of being a wife and mother and daughter. Manana refuses to explain herself to anybody, even as her decision causes shockwaves across her family and friends. She doesn’t have a lover, or an ulterior motive, or dreams of starting some crazy new endeavor. There was no big falling out with her husband. After living for everyone else, now, in her fifties, she wants just to be by herself.
But My Happy Family isn’t a simple tale of one woman’s liberation. Nana and Simon astutely follow the ripples and counter-ripples of Manana’s decision in the lives of those who know her, and one of the great delights of this film is the way it charts the shifting waves of allegiances that can occur in a family that loves and argues with equal ferocity. Her kids and husband may be shocked, but they suddenly take her side when their extended family tries to intervene. And Manana, as decisive as she is in pursuing this new life, still keeps being pulled back into the tumult of her family’s many disputes and heartbreaks. She’s still a mom and a daughter. She’s still, on some level, a wife.
The film unfolds as a series of long takes, as we follow characters in and out of rooms, staying close enough to register individual experiences while always making sure to keep the rest of the world in focus. But the camerawork isn’t that rough, handheld, verite style we’ve become so used to; it’s fluid without being showy, immediate without being unbalanced. The urgency and tension of each scene emerges organically. I was also mesmerized by the intimate detail with which this world was rendered – everything from the particular way a cheese seller holds out her hands while giving an old friend a hug, to the subtle ways that men and women reorganize themselves when in large groups. There isn’t a single second that doesn’t ring as achingly true.
My Happy Family grows more complex as it unfolds, as Manana learns more and more about her world and her family by her decision to separate from them. Nothing is, ultimately, as it seems. In that opening scene, the woman renting the apartment out to Manana tells her about the good luck the flat brings; a gas company employee visiting later in the film reveals that the previous tenant tried to kill themselves. Meanwhile, Manana’s distant, rarely happy husband, Soso (Merab Ninidze), turns out to have had secrets of his own. Usually in movies, these sorts of revelations help clarify matters, further establishing key themes and helping lead to narrative resolutions. But here, the more we learn, the less we know. One person’s betrayal turns out to be another’s noble sacrifice. Protective impulses become threats. Heartbreak becomes possibility. It all goes on and on until you realize that what you’re watching isn’t a movie anymore. It is life itself, in all its messiness and horror and glory.