Manana lives elbow to elbow in her Tbilisi apartment with her husband, Soso; her two children, Lasha and Nino; her mother; her father; and Nino’s husband, Vakho. If she wants to get dressed for the day, she has to sneak into Nino’s room and quietly sort through the family wardrobe that everyone keeps their clothes in, and she has to be careful, or the wardrobe creaks and wakes up Nino. Peace and quiet are foreign concepts to her. She can’t even celebrate her birthday the way she likes, calmly, because in Georgia, apparently any occasion calls for a party. (As cultural customs go, you could do worse.)
But things change after she turns 52, as Manana grabs a couple of bags, packs up her possessions, and moves on out to an apartment she’s renting by herself to live solitarily ever after. Sort of. “My Happy Family” is about a woman taking back her own life, but it’s also about the unbreakable ties we have to our kin; you can live in a different home from your spouse and your kids, but you can’t ever truly get away from them. It’s also touching and hilarious in nearly equal measure, though the film, directed by the filmmaking duo of Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, is inclined more on the side of melancholy than comedy. “My Happy Family” is a sad film that just grows sadder as it goes on, but it isn’t riddled with ennui. Its sadnesses are grounded in human experience in ways that allow Ekvtimishvili and Gross to find humor in their setup.
That’s how the film starts, in fact: with Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) checking out her new future digs, expressionless as her real-estate agent tells her that the last tenants were happy, and “even happier when they moved on to a better house and better things.” “My Happy Family” follows that sentiment through to its logical conclusion, exploring its truth and testing the limits of its wisdom. Is Manana really better off without her family? Is what she enjoys in living on her own the same thing as agency? In the end, does leaving really make her happy?
The simple answer is “yes.” The more complex answer is “yes, but also no.” Manana’s decision to vacate her home and leave Soso, Nino, and Lasha is met with concern from her mother, her brother Rezo (Dimitri Oragvelidze), and her uncles; they conspire behind her back and stage what can only be described as an intervention for Manana in a scene that ends up centering on her, uncomfortable and surrounded by her immediate and extended relatives as they squabble amongst themselves. Here, Ekvtimishvili and Gross cut away to a different scene: Manana alone in her apartment, cutting herself a slice of cake, sitting on her couch by her balcony, luxuriating in the breeze and the sunshine flooding into her living room as “Rondo alla Turca” plays in the background. Her back is to the camera, but we don’t need to see her face to know she’s smiling.
It looks like Manana has it made. A less complicated film would probably just leave it at that. But “My Happy Family” makes it clear that Manana’s bliss is repayment for a life lived in accordance with expectation. Expectation is why she married Soso, birthed Nino and Lasha, and raised a family without complaining. She doesn’t abandon Soso over marital strife. She doesn’t harbor any resentment toward her children, or hold grudges against her parents (even her mom, who by anybody’s definition is overbearing). She just wants the freedom to live on her terms, without having to worry about other people’s wants or needs. This is the tale of a woman taking back her life, choosing her happiness at last after spending so much of her life choosing others’. It is Manana’s business where she goes, what she does, when she eats cake; it is her business who she quarrels with, who she makes peace with. She’s liberated.
But only to an extent. She can’t divest herself of her family’s problems, whether it’s Vakho’s infidelity, or Lasha’s unexpected marriage, or Soso’s inability to define himself outside of being married. “My Happy Family” tells us that even if we arrange our lives around self-governance, we can’t avoid the orbits of other people or duck responsibility for those we care about. When Manana attends a reunion with her erstwhile school chums, the group takes a moment to remember their departed friends and make a dedication in their names. “You must live on behalf of these classmates,” one character declares to the room. The film doesn’t make a huge deal of her words, but it doesn’t have to. They underline “My Happy Family”’s core tension: that Manana needs to take care of herself but is bound by duty and custom to take care of her family, too.
Ekvtimishvili and Gross have composed their movie with long takes, graceful scripting, and an overarching sense of dignity, lingering on Manana from one scene to the next as she savors her newfound independence. She can’t help but return to her old home; there are too many fractures that need repairing in the framework of Nino’s, Lasha’s, and Soso’s existences. The film swivels from joy to strife, switching between Manana on her own and Manana entangled with the affairs of the family until the final shot, where the line that compartmentalizes Manana’s duelling sides is blurred. We’re left with a prickly kind of harmony that blends mundanity with profundity. There’s no more perfect a note for a film as intelligent, compassionate, and complex as “My Happy Family” to end on than that. [A]