Julia, Mariana, Rebecca, and Benny, children of Leo, join the family for lunch somewhere in Mexico and discuss whether to sell the ranch or not. Simple plot, nothing much to it. Ah! You would be mistaken if you thought so. Surely there have been movies, most notably Festen or the underrated Death in the Gunj, that highlight what happens when a family gets together in certain unique circumstances and things get explosive. Familia gives the impression that it’s another one of those films where secrets, psychological or sociological in nature, will come tumbling out, but it turned out to be a much more probing film. It’s not that exhilarating to watch the scenes unfold in this film, perhaps because I became like a voyeur, wanting to peep into the interpersonal dynamics of a family, waiting for the drama of the dysfunctional(?) family to unfold. Familia set me up for some spicy secrets, but it explored what the title refers to—a family.
Leo, owner of the ranch where his wife died six years ago, hosts the lunch for his three daughters, who seem so different from each other that one questions if they had different mothers. There are other moving parts of this family situation, and using the word ‘extended’ won’t describe it aptly. There was Rebecca’s husband Dan, with children Erica and Alan, and then there was Julia’s daughter Amanda and Mariana’s friend, or rather partner, Eva, and a few other characters like the housekeeper Teresa and her fiance. The film began with Leo seeing a memory come alive right in front of him. His wife is sitting happily on the couch, and two small girls are playing on the floor. Leo had the offer of selling the ranch, but he wanted his children’s opinions. A democratic process was warranted, and this was the main topic that Leo had kept for the lunch. Leo’s children are shown to have pretty strong opinions about the world, and it shows in how they are leading their lives, but is it helping them? Rebecca had plans to shift to Chicago with her family; Julia was caught cheating the third time by her husband and was deliberately too casual about it; and Mariana reached the ranch pregnant and wasn’t willing to disclose who the father was. Benny had Down’s syndrome, and he lived with Leo on the ranch itself. Leo, who seemed to be still in love with his wife’s memories, tries to deal with his pent-up emotions.
The movie seems to be divided into four parts. First is the arrival and greeting of the members. Then comes the short walk, followed by lunch. The third is the conversation between the three sisters, and finally, the goodbye. Each segment helps us figure out something about the family and their attitudes towards each other. Rebecca seems to be the most responsible out of them all, and consequently, she thinks about her sisters the most. She begs Julia to have a divorce and worries about Mariana if she is going to have the child and not be able to take care of it. There was Clara, Leo’s girlfriend, who got a sense of who he really was when everyone finally sat down to have lunch and he began to have a conversation with his daughters. For me, there were several moments that stood out, but they came at a time when the film had left things a little too late to set things up. There was a natural curiosity in me to know who these people were, and I was willing to wait to find out, but seeing the drama unfold at a slow pace took me out of it.
The most fascinating element of the movie lies not in the conversation but in the commentary the film makes on the families and societies they are a part of. What does it mean to have a functional family, or dysfunctional ones, for that matter? Leo breaks his dead wife’s plate in anger in one of the scenes and makes Julia run away from the dining table. But she doesn’t leave to go back to her house, after Leo begs her to stay. Leo is livid with Julia at one moment and acts like she is the soul of the event in a split second. Could it all be because she calls him by his first name, unlike all his other kids? The liberal and modern aspects of the film are too on the nose. Leo doesn’t mind being called by his first name and isn’t an ‘alpha,’ as pointed out by Clara. He is democratic in his approach when it comes to selling the ranch, a decision that he himself knows will surely cause problems. The film has segments that make one wonder: Is the authoritarian father a more selfless figure than the liberal one? And in the end, when all is said and done, is democracy a dragging system that cuts too deep with its slow pace?
Director Rodrigo García is dealing with memory while showing us that he is dealing with familial love. Co-writer Bárbara Colio helps craft swift dialogue that does not disturb the lucid nature of the film, although the editing in some places does. The film behaves as a memory of the lunch that Leo had with his family. All the choices, from the locations to the cinematography, seem to have been made to evoke that feeling of having captured a vivid memory. Some shots and sequences reminded me of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films, and any shot that reminds me of the Turkish filmmaker means it’s a good one, at least for me. The theme of grief, fatherhood, and sisterhood does give the film some central system to operate from, but what the film does with it left me feeling quite underwhelmed. I must add that at certain times I felt quite inexperienced and could not even begin to understand what was happening in a few scenes. There is one scene where Dan, Rebecca’s husband, speaks about how Rebecca and her family were held together by their TMI syndrome— ‘too much information’ affliction, implying they shared even the most sordid details. And later, he was the one who praised the family for the affection knitted into everyone’s relationships, which he didn’t get while he was growing up. Does ‘oversharing’ make it functional or dysfunctional? I have similar feelings about Familia. At one moment, I felt that the film was fixated on a single topic and did not find a way to move past it, and then I started to praise the film for it. Does it mean the film works for me or not? I can only say that in the end, the family shown in Familia is fictional, but I want to spend a day with them, and I think I would learn a lot if I was at that lunch as well and saw them in the moments the film didn’t show us.