Viewer's Discretion: Films explore a dysfunctional family, roles people play in life
For having such a high level of drama and despair lurking under the surface, the Georgian film "My Happy Family" manages to keep its tone as under control as its lead character's demeanor, painting a picture of a dysfunctional family that comes from a different place than usual.
Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) shares an apartment in Tbilisi with her entire family — her parents, her husband, her children and even a son-in-law. It's a cramped situation, but connections between the family make the small confines even more stifling for Manana and one day, without any warning to the rest of the family, she decides to move out.
In a society that is dominated by the desires and direction of the men, a woman moving out at the age of 52 is puzzling. To do so without her husband being some abusive monster is a source of confusion for Manana's extended family. And as Manana settles into her single life, in an apartment situation that brings her quiet, she is slowly able to discover what has been missing from her life.
There are also some revelations about the role men play in the lives of women, specifically about Manana's husband and son-in-law, and even, through the frantic characterizations of her mother, her father. Manana's understanding begins to soak in the entire idea of patriarchy and highlights how her very personal, unassuming rebellion is the tiny shift that can send quakes.
If what lies underneath seems strongly political, it rests below a charming cover. Shugliashvili's assurance is filled with warmth and the befuddled male family members, who plead for her return, make for good head-shaking comedy. And there's the bonus of Tbilisi — thanks to familial dysfunction, you get to spend time in intimate spaces, at meals, experiencing customs, which is a fascinating secondary delight of the film.
This dark British two-parter examines the roles we play in life so we can get through it, the tolls they take on us, and both the commonalities and differences in these from person-to-person, especially regarding gender, skin color and economic circumstance.
Leah (Phoebe Fox) is a white woman, who answers a distressed knock on her door. It's a black woman in a panic about her mother having a heart attack. As the conversation between them unfolds, we discover the two women went to school together, actually come from the same housing project, but Leah is now positioned in the upper middle class, while her schoolmate was kept down by the old neighborhood.
That encounter turns sour, and Leah tells this to her oldest friend, Natalie (Nikki Amuka-Bird), at a dinner party. Natalie also went to school with the woman, but as a black woman who became a successful barrister — and going so far to change her name from Keisha to mask her origins — Natalie looks down on the old schoolmate, in contrast to Leah's guilt-ridden sympathy for her.
But everyone has their own story, a mix of themselves and the circumstances around them. With each storyline there are expectations, and for both Leah and Natalie, some of the expectations have become forced paths that they are desperate to diverge from. In diverging, there can be intense guilt.
Based on a novel by Zadie Smith, the odysseys of Leah and Natalie, and others circling them through past and present connections — and one particularly tragic narrative — strand with very little narrative connection, but a thematic one of violence. The full picture becomes acutely grim, with some hard-to-watch scenes that feel like you're getting pummeled in the face. Amuka-Bird is particularly successful at relating her internal chasm and the rapidity with which her soul is plummeting down into it. It's harsh but effective, remarkably genuine and impressively prescient.
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