The burden of premature adult responsibilities forced on children by childish adults has rarely been captured quite so vividly as in “Communion.” Anna Zamecka’s documentary isn’t necessarily a model of verite purity (she gives herself a writing credit), but it feels psychologically true to the predicament of a Warsaw teenager stuck pulling the entire weight of a household that encompasses a useless parent and a special-needs sibling. This compelling slice of life has the kind of universality that could break it out of the festival circuit and into niche commercial exposure well beyond Polish borders.
Fourteen-year-old Ola has way too much on her plate. She’s cook, cleaner, nag and appointment-keeper for not only father Marek — an unhelpful layabout who hasn’t worked in some time and must be kept from crawling into the nearest bottle — but also autistic brother Nikodem. The latter is as full of life as Pa is lethargic. But while he may charm the viewer with his goofball antics, which include frequent animal imitations, Niko is also an exasperating, high-maintenance boy who can’t tie his shoes without help though he’s just one year Ola’s junior.
Their mother, Magda, is MIA; it’s never fully made clear when or why the parents separated, though we soon learn she’s living with another man, by whom she has a newborn third child. But Magda may have her own issues. While everyone else in the family seems in favor of her returning — and her current spouse’s abusive nature heightens that possibility — it becomes increasingly doubtful the reassembling the nuclear unit would provide Ola any practical relief. Indeed, it might simply saddle her with another needy body to care for (this one an actual infant, not just an emotional one).
The semi-scripted element in “Communion” (though the film doesn’t spell this out) is the titular event, which Zamecka proposed to family members as a sort of narrative structuring device. A first communion is a very big deal in overwhelmingly Catholic Poland, but young Niko had been deemed unfit by church authorities. The family welcomed a new effort to qualify him. Of course it primarily falls to Ola to coach the endearing, albeit ultra-short-attention-spanned, lad in tedious tasks like memorizing Scripture.
Meanwhile Ola has her own studies to maintain, and attempts to have a normal teenage social life. But Dad whines and backpedals on even the simplest promise of minding Niko for a couple hours. No wonder Ola — who hardly seems an innately self-piteous or frail character — often bursts into tears of sheer frustration. Nobody has her back. At 14, she already carries an air of sour disillusionment that might seem more natural, if still lamentable, in someone three times her age.
There’s an unadorned, direct quality to everything in the film (notably Matgorzata Szytak’s somewhat grainy lensing as well as the lack of any musical scoring) that, while hardly artless, feels unmediated by directorial p.o.v. That’s not to say the protagonists appear unaware of the camera’s presence — indeed, they often seem discomfited by it. Yet that factor somehow works to bring underlying tensions more into the open, despite some questions (especially concerning Magda) that remain unanswered. While “Communion” holds tight to its own private mysteries, it scores a perfect 10 in drawing out viewer empathy, leaving us hoping anxiously that things will turn out all right for its protagonists.