Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s My Happy Family navigates the aftershocks of a breach of a society’s restrictive codes of female conduct when 52-year-old Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) moves out of the cramped house she shares with her large family. Her refusal, perhaps even inability, to explain or justify her abrupt decision to leave vexes and frustrates her friends and family, especially given that she insists that her husband, Soso (Merab Ninindze), neither abused nor cheated on her. Rather than focus on the reasons for Manana’s departure, the film homes in on how everyone’s imperious reactions to her choice are rooted in deeply sexist expectations of maternal sacrifice and a wife’s undying subservience to her husband.
Set in Tbilisi, Georgia, My Happy Family casually lays out the domestic space where the story’s events takes place with acutely detailed cultural specificity: multiple generations living under one roof; the loosened yet still implicitly unquestioned patriarchal rule; and frequent large gatherings with an excess of both alcohol and communal singing. But the barrage of boisterous get-togethers and incessant pestering by entitled, petty family members explains only a sliver of Manana’s discontent with her home life. The stark contrast of her decaying yet peaceful new abode does, however, speak volumes to her desire to re-center herself in a space free of discord. A breeze blows through her balcony door and over her like a balm for her tired mind. Even the disparity between Manana’s two worlds is ingrained in the film’s style: The camera, persistently handheld as it manically hovers over Manana’s every movement when she seeks refuge from the chaos of her family’s home, steadies itself when the woman is inside her new apartment.
Shugliashvili shrewdly conveys Manana’s sense of emotional exhaustion and rejuvenated spirit as the character remains steadfast in her decision to live alone despite still visiting her family quite often. While the story of her past remains elusive, the film offers subtle details that paint an impressionistic portrait of the life Manana wishes to escape. From Soso throwing her a birthday bash she doesn’t want, to her full-grown son Lasha (Giorgi Tabidze) and daughter Nino’s (Tsisia Qumsashvili) growing indifference to her authority, to her parents nagging, domineering behavior, Manana’s individuality is stifled at every turn, leaving her only chance for true agency in her decision to remove herself from the environment that denies it to her.
As her parents and extended family plead with Manana to move back home, staging interventions and suggesting that she’s destroying the family’s reputation, we see the complexities of deeply rooted familial connections at work. Soso, baffled by his wife’s exodus, still steps in to defend her against harsher attacks by others, while her children continue to seek her advice regarding their own personal problems. One senses the woman grappling with the magnetic pull that the family home exerts on the fiber of her being. Throughout, her situation remains messy and ill-defined, as Soso continues to live with Manana’s parents while Manana never officially asks Soso for a divorce, and the film effortlessly inhabits this gray area where relationships are neither entirely severed nor repaired and freedom is an arduous process rather than earned instantaneously through a single decision.
My Happy Family’s penultimate scene transitions to more explicitly existential, and emotionally specific, terrain. After a physical altercation with three men sent by Manana’s brother to look after her, Manana and Soso move inside her apartment for their first and only heated exchange in the film. Manana, flustered by the unexpected violence between Soso and the hired thugs and yet another family member intruding on her privacy, asks of Soso, “How have you lived your life?” The question remains unanswered and lingers in the air, offering a fleeting glimpse into both the difficulties that Manana likely put up with for three decades of marriage and the type of man Soso may actually be. Most importantly, by alluding to the potential violence and volatility of Soso’s past, this exchange reinforces the courage and sheer strength of will it took Manana to break free from her toxic environment—and as she finally takes her husband to task, and in her own space no less, she truly reemerges as her own person and the one who will be determining her own future.