An unexpected visit from the in-laws quickly turns sour in the Magyar indie production “It’s Not the Time of My Life.” With his seventh feature, versatile Hungarian helmer Szabolcs Hajdu (“Mirage,” “Bibliotheque Pascal,” “White Palms”) orchestrates a fresh and funny chamber piece about midlife marital crises that will strike a universal chord at festivals far and wide. In addition to the highly relatable situations shot in a style of heightened naturalism and the Robert Altman-like overlapping dialogue, the drama gains further conviction from setting the action in the actual apartment lived in by the director and his wife, who, along with their real-life son, play the host family.
Late-thirtysomethings Farkas (Szabolcs Hajdu) and Eszter (Orsolya Török-Illyés, the helmer’s spouse and regular female lead) constantly bicker about the best way to parent their hyper-active, five-year-old son Bruno (Zsigmond Hajdu). He accuses her of being too permissive; she feels that he isn’t very involved. After audiences witness Bruno yelling at full-throttle in the film’s opening moments, it is easy to sympathize with both sides. Just as Eszter bitterly wonders aloud, “Why are we still together?” a knock at the door interrupts any further reckoning.
The unheralded guests are Eszter’s slightly older sister Ernella (Erika Tankó), her self-pitying husband Albert (Domokos Szabó), and their sullen, animal-loving offspring Laura (Lujza Hajdu, the real-life daughter of the helmer and his wife). After a year working on a farm in Scotland, where, Ernella confides, Albert did not get along with the locals, they are broke, homeless, and not happy about being back in Hungary. Some pithy, blackly comic dialogue nails the mixed feelings that Magyars who have lived outside their country have about their homeland.
Soon, the tight quarters of the apartment catalyze the discontent felt by all parties into recriminations, revelations and general bad behavior. Farkas reverts to his familiar pattern of making snide comments and running away from the situation as old sibling rivalries simmer once again and Albert, whom Ernella has cuckolded, takes his aggression out on their daughter. Many doors are slammed before the open ending arrives, but luckily, by then, Eszter’s more mature outlook seems to carry the day.
In a completely different strategy from his previous films, Hajdu first wrote and directed this material as a theater play in 2015, using the same adult cast. His deft film adaptation makes fine use of extreme close-ups and a roaming camera within the apartment so that it never feels stage-bound even though the action never leaves that confined space. The smooth unity of the visuals also belies the fact that Hajdu employs no fewer than 13 cinematographers, chosen from his film school students. Their creative lensing and framing (often creating additional frames within the frame) signals that a talented new generation is about to join the Hungarian film industry.
Hajdu, who belonged to a theater company in his youth, proves that he still has his acting chops as the immature husband who can’t come to terms with sharing his wife with his own child. He gets to deliver some priceless dialogue, including a backhanded compliment to his wife: “You’re so beautiful. You’re aging really nicely.” As the most sensible member of the household, Romanian-born Török-Illyés is fine as always. Tankó, who also comes from a Romanian-Hungarian family, looks and sounds like she could be Török-Illyés’ sister. Szabó, whose ties with Hajdu go back to their children’s’ theater days, is perfect as the put-upon brother-in-law. The two younger Hajdus prove themselves natural performers and their parents’ comfortable, warmly appointed apartment is an enviable piece of real estate.