Family Time film by Tia Kouvo

Vassilis Kroustallis reviews the Finnish comedy-drama 'Family Time' by Tia Kouvo.

Ella (Leena Uotila) has lived 52 years with her alcoholic husband Lasse (Tom Wentzel) but only cares for the sales items in her local Finnish supermarket (she's particularly fond of raisins). Her husband seems oblivious to the rest of the family (daughters and their children) coming for the Xmas celebration to their isolated, not-often-visited place. Her daughters Susanna (Ria Kataja) and Helena (Elina Knihtila) need romantic adventures, yet they settle for indifferent husbands or young sons to care about respectively. The kids, especially Hilla (Elli Paajanen), want to behave like kids -but the situation demands to take a more active role.
What precedes is the setting behind the low-key poignant family comedy-drama 'Family Time' by Tia Kouvo, based on her own 2018 short. 'Family Time' works best as a close observation of the irrelevant minutiae, which surround different lives (when the real issues are hidden under the rug). Take Ella, complaining constantly about her neighbors' poor health, when she knows that her frail but egocentric husband is the first on the line to go. Or, when Susanna tries to raise awareness of her job promotion -when it is clear that this is nothing fancy, and her sister Helena is the first to notice (with her mouth full of food).
 'Family Time' starts and ends with a shot of the main door, inviting all children and grandchildren to Ella and Lasse's place. Kouva chooses to frame her action in a series of static shot scenes, which work like welcome vignettes of people moving from one room side to the other; before we have the chance to get weary, a different angle of view comes to say the same thing. It's all about witnessing the eternal need to connect without necessarily connecting.

So, we learn and empathize more with the endless passing over of dishes through their Christmas table together, which reveals less of the wit and deadpan faces of Aki Kaurismaki, but more of a petit bourgeois Chabrol dinner -without the crimes.

A less sober attitude permeates the whole film, whose first part, contained in the single Christmas gathering, is itself an informed caleidoscope of its own, with silent frustration (coming to the 20-year-old Simo [Sakari Topi]) alternating with condescendence (and scatological scenes at their very Santa Claus impersonation extreme). The film takes a decidedly broader canvas in the second part (the post-Christmas life of its individuals), which works like a coda or a closer focus on characters who feel the need to explain more. Not everything works here; not all characters carry the same weight of interest. Yet we still get a glimpse of Lasse's previous life and some justification for a character that could have easily lapsed into the 'grumpy old man' stereotype. And we enjoy a pitch-perfect scene in the car garage between Susanna and Risto, which shows that the disintegration of marriage comes from the things we find most important. Susanna is trying to convey to Risto his sexual indifference as something on the side, something to be reckoned with. Yet his inability to move beyond the household provider role puts her into tears, before a compromised hugging and reconciliation finally takes place.
Acting is a collaborative business in 'Family Time'; actors work as insignificant versions of themselves, letting the younger generation (Hilla in particular) express her natural sense of wonder. Kouvo devotes a whole scene of moving shot wonder to Hilla in her grandfather's reserve with all his tools on display, as if the need to move forward comes with understanding the heinous past is about.

Production design makes the comparison between the two film chapters (homely but still unbearable family atmosphere vs. separated, empty lives) all the more prominent; a pet cat bridges both the first and the second part of the film.

'Family Time' is a helpful, almost heartfelt reminder that our time with our loved/hated relatives can still bear some small-scale drama; it is consistent in this premise, and, even though it tends to forget some of its main characters and situations (at the expense of others), it presents a finely-tuned version of family inability to cope.

'Family Time' was screened at the 2023 Riga International Film Festival

Vassilis Kroustallis