“My Happy Family may taper off before it has completed its arc, but the core of the movie burns bright.”
by Ken Bakely
The temptation is to call the title ironic. After all, in Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s My Happy Family, nobody seems to be very happy. Manana (Ia Shugliasvili), a middle-aged teacher in Tbilisi, resides in a cramped apartment with multiple generations of her family, as is custom in Georgian culture. Feeling constrained by the constant presence of everyone – her husband, her mother, her grown children, and so on – she shocks her family, and societal implications at large, by promptly deciding to move out. She’s already rented a new apartment, and despite confusion and objection, ventures out. The complications come in the world she must navigate alone, and the ways that this drastically changes the dynamic with her kin.
And there’s the easy route of looking at the English title, an accurate translation of the Georgian one. But to stop there is a denial of the movie’s underlying themes: through a long survey of adjustment and disunity, the idea that a new kind of happiness and a new way of living can be found. Manana, never satisfied with the noisy, unpredictable energy of her old home, does not leave for immediate renewal, but rather a quest for independence which the society she grew up in denied her, and every other woman. Ia Shugliasvili’s performance is so key to understanding this – careful gestures, hesitant actions, words self-edited while they are spoken. The camera waits for her, instead of the other way around. Her presence is singular, though understated, and she is always the center of the frame, drawing an internal push through even the loudest streets, busiest gatherings, and most crowded market squares.
My Happy Family does not deal in stark revelations or stunning developments, though there are a few. In the strictest sense, it is a character portrait, studying Manana as an experimenter, cutting through concepts and seeking a march towards ideas. The dim lighting, and the peeling, sickly sea-green paint in her new apartment is at first startling – the landlady showing the unit to her in the film’s first scene all but admits that the residence could only be used as temporary or last-ditch. But beggars can’t be choosers, and at this point in Manana’s life, as she resolves to take action against that which has been eating away at her, the movie reminds us that she is, uncomfortably, in that kind of position. The message is by necessity one of self-reliant feminism, and a rap against the aged patriarchy that binds its surrounding culture by showing the lengths one woman must go to in order to live outside of it.
Ekvtimishvili and Gross advance this message not through direct politicizing, but unmistakable observations. This allows My Happy Family to deal in a blend of realism and abstract philosophy, proving to be both a great thematic asset and a mark against storytelling prowess. Manana’s move away from her family gives her the latitude to learn things about them that she didn’t know before, or perhaps didn’t want to. The film allows these developments to appear and grow, but by the end of the two hours, has treated them like a kind of red herring, pieces that ultimately serve the plot instead of the characters. The ending is two-thirds of a good one, starting as a restrained emotional culmination, hitting referential beats that land with effect, but winding up on the perch of something greater and more complete, never poking through. If the point is to advance how much more Manana has left to do, the script doesn’t establish that as a proper jumping-off point to begin with.
So at the center, through the hills and valleys of the film’s structure, there is a great performance from Shugliasvili, able to sustain the central thesis, even when the plotting is uncharitable. My Happy Family may taper off before it has completed its arc, but the core of the movie burns bright. Manana’s yearning for independence is at once specific to the movie’s setting, but carries more universal implications. We empathize with her, not only because she is the protagonist, but because her objectives are deeply realized. It’s a desire to find oneself, to relinquish oneself from the settings which hold them back, and break free.