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Family Life | 2017 Sundance Film Festival Review

Strangers When We Meet: Scherson and Jimenez Present Sibling Identity Exercise

Two members of Chile’s contemporary cinema scene join forces in co-directing Family Life, an ambiguous portrait of familial ties teasing the taken-for-grantedness of believing people are who they say they are purely on face value. Alicia Scherson (whose previous film was 2013’s Il Futuro, a Sundance premiered title about an orphaned brother and sister drawn into the mysterious world of an ex-Mr. Universe played by Rutger Hauer) teams with director Cristian Jimenez and screenwriter Alejandro Zambra (who last worked together in the same capacity of 2011’s Bonsai), and the end results feels comparable in tone to this entry, a flashback narrative about a young man’s previous love interest. Unique, in how we can’t exactly predict where this tale about an impetuous young man house sitting for his distant cousin is going, the narrative spins wheels when he cons a young woman into believing he is the lonely homeowner.

When married couple Consuelo (Blanca Lewin) and Bruno (Cristian Carvajal) decide to uproot their lives to take advantage of a professorship he was offered, they hire Bruno’s distant cousin Martin (Jorge Becker) to housesit in Santiago for several months. No one in the family seems to have spoken to Martin for some time, so when the surly young drifter arrives with an obvious chip on his shoulder, Bruno is a bit put off by his behavior, but forges ahead with their agreement. After making a pass at Counselo as they say goodbye, the unenthusiastic young man accidentally loses the cat and tells the monthly cleaning lady to take a hike. As he searches for the house cat, he is angered to discover someone has posted signs for their lost dog over his missing feline. Calling to gripe about this slight, he meets beautiful neighborhood denizen Paz (Gabriela Arancibia of Bonsai). As the two begin a romance, Martin poses as a divorcee who is not allowed to his see his daughter, the pictures of Counselo in the apartment meant to be the difficult woman in question. Their sexual proclivities deepen, until suddenly Martin trashes the flat and disappears before his cousins arrive home.

Family Life opens on a sex sequence between Bruno and Consuelo, following their nonchalant concern about whether their daughter heard their lovemaking. Later, when they’re in the same bed after Martin’s flight, the audience is now privy to information the married couple is not, which enhances their vulnerability and a larger theme of naiveté concerning how little we know the people right next to us or what happens in what we deem to be our private spaces. One of Counselo’s friends advises her on making Bruno accept part of the blame because he allowed this stranger into their home. Her response is a remark on how she’s perhaps too often critical of Bruno, while we know she was most likely pleased with Martin’s gesture (her rebuff creates his complicated little fantasy concocted for Paz’s benefit, after all).

Chilean DP Cristian Petit-Laurent (of Bonsai as well as Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria) is on hand to give the film a washed out, unassuming look. Nearly all of the film takes place inside the flat Martin housesits, and despite being filled with literature and toys, is still potentially too drab for either Martin or Consuelo to be perfectly content with their lives as they know them. As a scenario of oddness and discomfort, Family Life wavers tenuously on remaining compelling, however, once Martin’s strangeness settles in, this slight comedy on social norms hits a monotonous stride as we wait for the reveal of the imposter. A longing stare shared between Paz and Counselo is perhaps one of the film’s best moments, a juxtaposition of what might be true and what we otherwise believe to be true.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Reviewed on January 20th at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival – World Dramatic Competition Programme. 80 Min.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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