My Happy Family (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): When she walks away from her family

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Georgian film “My Happy Family”, which is currently available on Netflix, is a small unexpected surprise which amused and touched me a lot. On one level, it is an intimate female drama about a woman who tries to reach for her own life and identity, and there are a number of nice sensitive moments which let us emphasize more with her complex conundrum. On the other level, it is a thoughtful family drama which cares about not only its heroine but also other family members around her, and there are several humorous moments as its heroine finds herself continuing to get involved with her family members even while she tries to walk away from them.

The story begins with the opening scene which shows its heroine looking around a cheap apartment located somewhere in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. Her name is Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), and we come to gather that this middle-aged female teacher has considered leaving her husband and family, but she is still wondering whether she can really do it or not. After all, she and her family have lived together in her family apartment for more than 20 years, and it is certainly not easy for her to leave behind what has been a big important part of her life.

When she comes back to her family apartment, we understand more of her longtime frustration and exasperation. While her parents, her husband, her two children, and her son-in-law are going through their dynamic domestic life as usual, she is merely being around them except when they need her. Her mother always annoys Manana with her fastidiousness, her husband is not exactly cordial to Manana although he has been pretty much like a son to his parents-in-law, and Manna’s children still depend on their parents and grandparents even though they have already entered adulthood.

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And then two individual incidents happen. When her 52nd birthday comes, Manana says to her family that she does not want any particular celebration for her birthday, but, not so surprisingly, nobody listens to her, and their apartment is soon crowed with her family members and her husband’s several friends. As they drink and sing together, Manana feels more frustrated and isolated than before, and there are some cringe-inducing moments as we see how oblivious they are to Manana’s feelings.

On the next day, she goes to her school as usual, and she talks a bit with one of her students, who has frequently missed her class for a while. It turns out that this young girl recently got married but then eventually divorced, and, as talking with her, Manana comes to realize that she must make a quick, firm decision just like her student did.

We subsequently see the consequence of her decision. Her mother understandably becomes quite hysterical as a conservative woman who has never dreamed of leaving her family, and Manana also has to deal with several old relatives who try to persuade her to change her mind. In contrast, her husband is rather phlegmatic while respecting her decision, and so do her children, who, unlike many of their old relatives, think that their mother does not have to be bound by old family values.

Once she moves into that apartment, it looks like everything will be fine for her. She cleans the apartment, she brings some furnitures and other things into the apartment, and she finally gets a chance to enjoy free time in her own private space. As a piece of classic music is played in the background, she relishes a slice of cake while feeling more comfortable than before, though she is not so sure about what will be next for her.

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While she tries to settle in this changed status of hers, the movie rolls her story along a series of episodic moments, which respectively make her reflect more on her past, present, and future. At one point, Manana comes across an old schoolmate she has not met for years, and they later go together to the reunion party of their schoolmates. While she talks with her other schoolmates, an old hidden secret in the past is revealed to her by coincidence, and her quiet emotional turmoil is contrasted with the joyous mood surrounding her.

And, to our amusement, her family keep coming to her in one way or another. As she gets more involved in her children’s personal matters, Manana feels like being drawn back to her family, and she does not like that much, but she still feels obligation as a member of her family. In addition, her husband becomes a little more active than before when she comes to a family celebration later in the story, and that eventually leads to the funniest moment in the film.

Deftly balancing their movie between humor and drama, Directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß draw unadorned natural performances from their main cast members. As steadily and fluidly moving around the performers in the film, Cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s handheld camera vividly captures the nuances and details in their performances, and we are constantly absorbed into their characters’ reality. While Ia Shugliashvili’s terrific acting functions as the emotional center of the movie, the other performers surrounding her are also solid in their respective roles, and Merab Ninidze is particularly good as a baffled guy who tries to understand what has been eating his wife.

Some of you may be dissatisfied with its deliberately open-ended ending, but “My Happy Family”, which was introduced in South Korea as “Manana’s Elopement”, is still a wonderful drama which transports us to a specific background and then engages us with its universal human elements, and it is definitely one of the most memorable movies of this year to me. I am glad that it is widely accessible at present, and I urge you to watch this superlative work as soon as possible.

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