“My Happy Family,” the somewhat attenuated second feature from helmers Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross (a real-life couple credited here as “Nana and Simon”), continues their exploration of Georgia’s distaff side with a low-key, slice-of-life look at a middle-aged woman who leaves her husband. With its vociferously arguing family members, multiple dinner table scenes, and camerawork by DP Tudor Vladimir Panduru (who also shot Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation”), it feels much closer to recent Romanian cinema than to such similarly-themed titles as Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman.” Although the energy and freshness of the directors’ acclaimed debut “In Bloom” are not so much in evidence here, “Family” does offer an interesting perspective on a changing patriarchal society, which should serve this sociological drama well on the fest circuit and in niche European play.
When we first meet her, Manana (theater thesp and vocalist Ia Shugliashvili), a 52-year-old high school literature teacher, is checking out a tiny apartment for rent. It soon becomes obvious why she longs for a room of her own: The multi-generational living common to conventional Georgian families is oppressing her and breaking her spirit. Production designer Kote Japharidze and lenser Panduru emphasize the claustrophobia she feels with crowded interiors, low ceilings, and tightly framed shots.
Manana shares a cramped, noisy Tbilisi flat with her aged parents; the overly-critical, nagging Lamara (Berta Khapava) and ailing Otar (Goven Cheishvili); her importuning hubby Soso (international star Merab Ninidze, downplaying his looks and charisma); computer-addicted son Lasha (Giorgi Tabidze); pretty, pregnancy-obsessed daughter Nino (Tsisia Qumsashvili); and Nino’s cheating partner, Vakho (Giorgi Khurtsilava). Not only does she lack space, forced to store her clothes in an occupied spare bedroom, but she has virtually no free time. Her son wants dinner made for him, and her husband insists that she visit with his friends, who drunkenly linger, making music much past their welcome.
When Manana learns that one of her teenage students has already married and divorced, simply for not getting along with her new husband, it sparks her resolution. The callow youngster’s explanation, “When you say no, you have to mean it,” stands in stark contrast with Manana’s inability to get her family to respect the lines she wants to draw.
Though young Georgians may be marrying young and shedding spouses rather quickly today, it’s another thing altogether for a woman of Manana’s generation. For her, divorce represents a major break from tradition. Rather than trying to understand her desire to live alone, her parents and overbearing older brother Rezo (Dimitri Oragvelidze) worry about what other people will think of their family’s reputation. A council of elderly relatives are equally judgmental; it’s beyond their understanding, as revealed when one comments, “But he doesn’t beat you and isn’t a drunk,” to Soso.
Once on her own, Manana is shown enjoying the small satisfactions of single life: listening to music, reading, noodling on her guitar, changing her clothes without disturbing others, shopping at leisure, nurturing tomato plants on her deck, and eating cake instead of an entire meal without attracting any criticism. She builds her new life slowly, fighting to resist attempts by needy family members to draw her into their time-sucking circle again. But when she attends a school reunion and proudly tells her female friends about her new status, they share some news that comes as a shocking revelation to Manana, and almost shatters her newfound peace of mind.
Providing certain vivid detail but rather lacking in vitality, Ekvtimishvili’s screenplay is stronger on sociology than drama. While she notably contrasts the relationship and lives of three generations of Georgian women, she and editor Stefan Stabenow allow dramatic events such as Manana’s actual divorce and the breakup of Nino and Vakho’s relationship to take place off-screen, robbing the overall action of the dynamism of climatic situations. Instead, scenes of parties and family get-togethers play at extended length, merging into a certain sameness distinguished only by the traditional Georgian songs performed, while the dialogue during the family argument scenes is so repetitive that they feel like rehearsal exercises.
Even though audiences can’t help but feel for Manana and celebrate her courage and resolve, Shugliashvili’s stoop-shouldered, furrowed-brow performance doesn’t completely bring them into the nuances of what she is thinking and feeling. In comparison to Manana, the other characters have so little screen time that they mainly exist as foils, including “In Bloom’s” hot-blooded Natia (Mariam Bokeria), who appears in an amusing cameo as Lasha’s sweet but slightly vulgar fiancée.