Helmer Fernando Leon, 28, makes an auspicious debut with “Family,” an engaging, warm and surprisingly mature satirical comedy, set over a single day, which manages a new take on an old theme. Pic’s witty central idea and Leon’s treatment of it are strong enough to suggest there will be offshore interest to add to the enthusiasm it should provoke at home after taking the best young director prize at this year’s Valladolid festival.
A sizable family is gathered at the home of Santiago (Juan L. Galliardo) to celebrate his 55th birthday. First sign of the script’s quality is that, without the least confusion, it manages to introduce the audience to seven characters in its first 15 minutes. Others are wife Carmen (the slightly worn beauty of veteran Amparo Munoz), brother and sister-in-law Sole (Agata Lys) and Ventura (Chete Lera), and children Luna (Elena Anaya), Carlos (Juan Querol) and Nico (chubby youngster Anibal Carbonero).
Something is clearly wrong as Santiago opens his presents, and it becomes clear that the “family” is not Santiago’s family at all, but a team of actors, hired to enliven a lonely man’s birthday and to maintain the fiction through the day.
Pic explores every comic — and not so comic — avenue the idea throws up, without drifting into the merely absurd. Santiago tests his “family” on whether they have remembered their lines. He gives Luna a hilarious, though also disturbing, father-to-daughter lecture. The relationship between Santiago and Nico gradually improves, and Santiago drifts touchingly into invented reminiscence.
Pic’s darker side comes after Santiago and Carmen make love, and we learn that Carmen is married, in real life, to Ventura. The arrival of Alicia (Beatrice Camurat), full of praise for Santiago and his wonderfully normal “family,” introduces a further complication as the premise starts to flag.
Helmer Leon is careful to keep things low-key, and Galliardo’s central perf as bearded, gruff Santiago — whose loneliness, pic subtly suggests, may be the product of some deep emotional problem — makes a thoroughly plausible dramatic focus. Other perfs are similarly believable, particularly Munoz as the high-strung Carmen.
Pic’s pacing is questionable only toward the end, with a final revelation that can only pale beside that of the first scene. (Premise was a dramatic straitjacket from which the film would never escape.) The comedy, never far from the surface, is reinforced by lively music from swing violinist Stephane Grappelli.