Fun and games for all the family take a mordant turn in “Family Film,” a story of parental negligence and youthful irresponsibility that young and old might prefer to watch in separate rooms. Irony-attuned audiences, however, will find plenty to enjoy in this elegant, darkly unpredictable fusion of ashen black comedy and urgent domestic drama, in which a standard home-alone setup degenerates into a tense worst-case scenario from every perspective — even that of the family border collie. The plucky pup’s own dramatic arc is the most beguiling of many curiosities in Slovenian director Olmo Omerzu’s perverse but poignant second feature, which should turn a number of unrelated heads on the festival circuit — among them, distributors with a taste for straight-faced eccentricity. Don’t hold your breath for a Disney remake.
Omerzu opens “Family Film” with footage — filtered through a backseat television screen — of amphibian mating rituals from a David Attenborough-style wildlife documentary, cluing viewers in to the pic’s own level of observational remove. Over the course of the film, children will be left to fend for themselves in the sleek urban forest, while their put-upon pet will face a more literal wilderness, with Lukas Milota’s flannel-toned camerawork maintaining the same degree of uninvolved, non-invasive scrutiny throughout. “Nature Film” would have been no less appropriate a title, given how Omerzu and Nebosja Pop-Tasic’s sharp, structurally daring script probes coolly into more primal realms of animal behavior in man and beast alike.
At the outset, however, all would appear to be in order with the eponymous family, a well-off Czech brood with a roomy Prague apartment so tastefully appointed as to make Nancy Meyers’ decorator weep into her dust ruffle. We never learn what parents Igor (Karel Roden) and Irena (Vanda Hybnerova) do for a living; whatever the answer, it permits them to take off for several weeks on an expensive Indian Ocean sailing vacation, taking their beloved pooch Otto with them on the high seas. This dog may have his (holi)day, but the couple’s children aren’t so lucky: Conscientious highschooler Anna (Jenovefa Bokova) is charged with the care of her younger brother Erik (Daniel Kadlec), with Igor’s brother Martin (Martin Pechlat) checking in on them from time to time.
Igor and Irena make rather a show of their liberal parenting style — reclining semi-nude during their Skype calls home, for example — but their trust, as it turns out, is slightly misplaced. As Erik takes advantage of their absence to skip school for days on end, Anna opens the household to the seductively wayward influence of her best friend Kristina (ensemble livewire Eliska Krenkova), an uninhibited vamp-in-training who soon has the sexually naive lad, in particular, wrapped around her finger. Just as it seems that familial disaster may strike first in Prague, however, an unseen storm leaves the parents presumably lost at sea. Our only clue to their fate is their woebegone dog, who washes up alone on a deserted tropical shore.
From this point forward, none of the drama unfolds as one might expect. With one half of their core quartet rendered unceremoniously incommunicado, Omerzu and Pop-Tasic keep redirecting the narrative with drastic melodramatic turns, to a point of absurd excess. Yet the dry, academic distance from which the pic views the fallout lends peculiar credibility to these heightened circumstances; “Family Film” emerges as an exacting study of each member’s function (and dysfunction) in the family unit. That includes our intrepid border collie, with a surprising amount of screen time given over to Otto’s solo survival battle on a sodden, mangrove-laced beach. This veritable canine “Cast Away” saga will delight some viewers and bemuse others — but like all the film’s seemingly arbitrary digressions, held deceptively in check by Janka Vickova’s sly editing, it builds to a cutting punchline.
The cast complies perfectly with their helmer’s chosen register of deadpan reserve, with the trio of young actors doing particularly fine, anxious work in the film’s deliberately unmoored middle stretch. The lithe, striking Krenkova is something of a revelation, deftly playing both the preternatural poise and the try-hard childishness in Kristina’s bad-girl persona. For aficionados of four-legged thesping, meanwhile, a star is born in Flek, the dolefully expressive hound who carries so much of the film’s latter half on his shaggy shoulders.