In the Georgian drama film My Happy Family, Manana (Ia Shughliashvili), a middle-aged schoolteacher, decides to move out of the apartment she shares with her parents, her husband, her children, and nearly everyone reacts with varying degrees of scorn and shock. Manana’s own reticence to explain her sudden change of heart certainly compounds her family’s confusion; as she stoically gathers her things together and loads them in bags, she’s followed by an increasingly hysterical cacophony of curses and pleas. Why did Manana suddenly decide that what she needed was her own place? Yet to the audience, a mere scene transition from her family home, filled to the brim with chatter and demands, to her new apartment renders Manana’s motives startlingly clear — we hear nothing except for the breath of the wind and scattered birdsong. There’s nothing in Manana’s new apartment but Manana herself; she has the power to choose the sounds she wants to surround herself with.
There’s no clichéd moment of catharsis in My Happy Family in which we see Manana instantly make the decision to leave her family, no shouted declaration of “I’ve had enough!” Rather, we get a portrait of a woman worn away by degrees, like waves carving into a cliffside. After fulfilling society’s expectations of her as a wife and mother and daughter, the sounds of her family’s needs and pleas and wants have accumulated in the creases of her forehead over the years; now, all she wants is silence. Indeed, in the face of her family’s outrage, Manana’s key weapon is her quiet nature and her unflappable resolve: the more one-sided the screaming matches are, the more obvious it is why Manana left. There’s comedy buried in the mise-en-scène of the scene where her family tries to stop her from leaving; as Manana’s son wonders aloud, “I can’t understand why she doesn’t like it here,” we see in the background a bed pushed into an open hallway nook, a reminder of the sheer lack of privacy that Manana wants to leave behind.
It’s a smart move on the part of the directors (Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß) to begin My Happy Family with Manana being shown the new apartment, where the doors creak and the voice of the realtor echoes beneath high ceilings, only to then switch to the overstuffed family apartment, where the cross-cutting and interrupting noises of her mother, children, and the television blaring in the background provide a wallop of a contrast. In the following scene, the family apartment becomes even more crowded as relatives pour through the front door, eager to take part in the birthday party Manana explicitly stated she didn’t want. As Manana stands outside on the balcony, alone, her family drinks, sings, gossips, blithely unaware that Manana would rather trade their presence for the space of her own thoughts. We know instantly what she’s leaving behind, and why.
Ia Shughliashvili’s performance as Manana is wonderfully understated — the kind of performance that doesn’t feel like active performing at all. Her movements are careful and slow, almost dreamlike; her face is the face of someone thinking a million more thoughts than they dare to express. After all, it’s clear that when she does express what she wants — whether it’s a quiet birthday, or asking her brother to respect her privacy in her new neighborhood — she’s ignored outright. When she demonstrates what she wants in deed rather than word — namely, when she moves out — her family just assumes that she’ll change her mind, that her expressing a modicum of independence is merely a phase she needs to get out of her system before she returns home. It’s as if Manana doing something for herself is a temporary state, and that her acting the way she’s expected to out of guilt or obligation is the natural order.
Only in her role as a teacher (which provides her financial independence) does Manana feel as though her thoughts and opinions matter and are worth expressing — here, the conversations she takes part in are two-way affairs, not heads butting up against one another. In a key scene early in My Happy Family, she confronts a truant student, only to find out that the young girl (who cannot be older that seventeen or eighteen) has missed so much school because she was getting divorced. (The fact that she was even married comes as a shock to both us and to Manana.) The student then tells Manana about why she left her husband, then remarks, “If you say no, you should mean it. You shouldn’t look like you’re hesitating […] many girls tell their sweethearts that they’re leaving. But they get back together. If you say it once, you should do it.” We see Manana’s gaze leave her student’s face and turn inwards, no doubt steeling herself for the messiness of trying to leave, preparing herself the resistance she will face.
The movie’s episodic pacing continues until about the halfway point, when the other shoe Manana hadn’t even anticipated drops: at a party with her former school classmates, Manana finds out that her husband Soso (Merab Ninidze) — the one member of her family who had accepted her leaving without the histrionics and air of betrayal — had had an affair over a decade prior, and that he has a son. In a parallel to the birthday party scene, Manana sits silently, her composure slowly wilting as the women discussing Soso act like she’s not there, praising her for not making a fuss over Soso’s infidelity. Finally, we see the dam break when she escapes to the bathroom and cries for the only time in the film. Of course, even after feeling her world shatter around her, she’s pulled back into the world of obligation as soon as she leaves the bathroom: the partygoers demand she play a song for them on the guitar, and her demurrals and “no” are ignored outright. And yet her relationship with Soso does not change much even with the weight of knowledge she’s rather not have (without getting into spoilers here).
A pair of later conversations between Manana and her daughter Nino (Tsisia Qumsishvili), who lives in the family apartment with her husband, provide Manana with a look back onto her own life, and highlight another reason for becoming independent, even at this late stage: to show her daughter another way that doesn’t involve following the expected life plan. In the first conversation, Manana, who knows that Nino’s husband is having an affair, urges her daughter that perhaps not being able to get pregnant is not the worst thing in the world—that she is young enough to be able to study, or travel, with the implication that Manana wishes she had done more of those things before getting married and having children. Manana tells Nino that perhaps she and her husband need to get to know one another better anyway to see if they are truly a good pair; Nino, perhaps already suspecting that something is wrong in her marriage, goes on the attack, accusing Manana of interfering in her life and trying to push her to leave just as Manana left Soso.
Yet in the second conversation, which takes place after both Manana and Nino have learned their own uncomfortable truths, all Manana can do is give her crying daughter water and murmured encouragement, while Nino mourns, "If I were pregnant, everything would be better now” — despite Manana’s best efforts, Nino has internalized society’s expectations for her, and finds a way to blame herself. In response, Manana tells Nino, “It hurts now, but you’ll see things differently.” Feeling both sorrow and relief, Manana sees the future open up for her daughter, just as it did for her student when her student made the choice to leave. It make have taken Manana until middle age to dream of a future where she lives for herself and not just for her familial obligations, but she’s there now.
My Happy Family is streaming on Netflix now
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Deborah Krieger is a freelance arts and culture writer and nascent art/media historian and curator. She can be found at www.i-on-the-arts.com and on Instagram @debonthearts.