Sometimes you'll hear a news item about domestic abuse and you'll wonder just how in the hell someone could ever do something so cruel as to terrorize their own family. The Romanian dark comedy Everybody in Our Family from director Radu Jude isn't exactly “Sympathy For Wife Beater,” but it does a remarkable job of getting you inside the head of a man goaded to the edge of inadvisable behavior's cliff to let strong winds and gravity do the rest.
When we first meet Marius (Serban Pavlu) he seems like a man-child in the classic Apatow mold. His middle-aged appearance is in noticeable contrast to his messy bachelor pad festooned with rock posters, cluttered with DVDs and an unmade, unshared bed. Strapping a giant (and hilarious) plush octopus to his bike he rides to his parents' home to pick up their car. He's met with warmth at first, but conversation turns to his ex-wife and his father is unable to contain his temper. Marius should not be content to put up with the minuscule amount of court-appointed days he gets to spend with his daughter, he barks. The shouting escalates past the point of normal bickering and Marius leaves, taking our sympathies with him.
He gets to his ex-wife's apartment, met by his former mother-in-law and a nice enough dude we'll eventually learn is the ex's new boyfriend. Marius is all packed and ready to take the kid to the beach for a week of pre-approved holiday. There's a problem, though. The daughter is sick and sleeping in the other room.
Despite suggestions to call the trip off, Marius sticks around and makes small talk, waiting for both the little girl to wake up and for his ex to come back from a beauty parlor appointment. In time he sneaks into his daughter's room. Yes, she is sleeping in middle of the day, but once she is awakened she seems fine. Is she actually sick? Is this all some kind of conspiracy?
Two things happen next. First, we see just how freaking adorable the little moppet Sofia Nicolaescu is. I won't stretch and call it a great child acting performance, but it acts as some of the greatest propaganda for child-rearing I've ever seen. It's like a call to arms for couples to just drop their pants and procreate right there in the aisles. Second (and perhaps more germane to the plot) we see that Marius is a good father: he's playful but provides boundaries, he's respectful of Sofia's intelligence and quite loving.
As Marius tries to leave the apartment with Sofia the other two players keep coming up with excuses to detain him. In time it becomes clear, they simply don't want to let him to go. Once the ex-wife comes home all hell breaks loose. Marius loses his shit and finds himself in a spiraling tantrum of self-destructive behavior.
What's most exciting about Everybody in Our Family is feeling yourself lose your sympathy with Marius. No doubt everyone will have a different breaking point. Eventually, though, you will switch sides in the domestic debate (if not, well, you may want to keep that to yourself) and when you do you'll find yourself reassessing the earlier parts of the film. Much about the broken marriage is left ambiguous, but the little things we do hear suddenly bear more scrutiny. Like, why does Marius have so few allotted days to see Sofia? Maybe there's a reason for that?
Everybody in Our Family is an intense ride. I was caught up in knots, mostly because I was certain that something dreadful would happen to little Sofia. I even made a pledge to myself that if she got hurt in any way I was going to have to say “fuck this” and leave the theater. It's rare that I have to make deals with myself with watching a movie – I interpret this as evidence of the film's power.
The other important thing: Everybody in Our Family is really quite funny. Serban Pevlu has a dorky demeanor and that makes the film's initial small talk light and amusing. He's fundamentally sympathetic, which really works when the film turns dark. Even though there will be emotional fallout for poor Sofia for the rest of her life, the absurd nuclear meltdown of her family is undeniably amusing in a sick way. Nervous chuckles, to be sure, but Pevlu's panicked face as digs his grave ever deeper is classic comic acting that is all the more striking in this uncomfortable setting.
Everybody in Our Family is playing at Lincoln Center's New Romanian Film spotlight from November 29th through December 5th. No word yet on further distribution, but I think you can count on this one having a post-festival life.