Tia Kouvo’s first feature film is based on her very own dysfunctional family, and it is an extension of the 2018 short film also authored by the filmmaker. Most of the action takes place on December 23rd, as three generations of the family congregate at the grandparents’s snowy house for a celebration from hell. There is no holiday season joy at sight, but instead abundant misery to be shared. None of the people sitting on the dinner table seem to enjoy other’s company. A relatable predicament to many Christians who only meet their relatives during the festive season.
The elders Lasse (Tom Wenzel) and Ella (Leena Ootila) barely talk to each other, the male prioritising the television over his wife, with a can of beer firmly attached to his hand. The inept Ella carelessly prepares the food and the decorations for the two daughters, Susanna (Ria Kataja) and Helena (Elina Knihtila), and the grandchildren. Neither woman is particularly keen on their parents, and talk of death is a particularly popular topic. The youngest generation remain nonplussed. Remarkably, there is no shortage of conversation (however banal it may be, such as protracted argument about the difference between butter and margarine). This may come as a surprise to those used to Ari Kaurismaki’s (Finland’s best know filmmaker) more deadpan and laconic films.
The director keeps a Brechtian distance from her characters throughout the entire film. Most of the shots are either medium or wide, with a few Dutch angles thrown in for extra awkwardness. Characters talk at length even when their faces are not visible (at times, you only see their legs). The camera is almost entirely static, except for two car sequences and gentle pan in the final scene. There are no close-ups. It is often difficult to make out their faces because the director does not use any non-diegetic lighting. These are clearly creative choices. The director is attempting to alienate and even disengage viewers. Perhaps Tia Kouvo wants us to suffer as much as those forced to join a Christmas reunion with a family whom they despise.
The problem is that instead of Brechtian alienation, Family Times instead lapses into confusion. I couldn’t work out who some of the characters were even after watching the film for nearly two hours (the movie does overstay its welcome, with a runtime of 116 minutes). There are some good moments though, such as when the little daughter Hilla sings a Christmas carol only to be interrupted by her alcoholic grandfather defecating on the carpet. Well, shit happens. And so does piss, as we find out later. A few drops of humour, however, as not enough to enhance the flavour of the movie as a whole. The outcome is a film audacious in its aesthetic austerity, clouded by a maundering script and poor character development.
Family Time showed at the 22nd Transylvania International Film Festival, in Cluj Napoca, when this piece was originally written. Also showing at the 41st Turin International Film Festival.