The family unit is often spoken about as the foundation of a functioning human life, something to be respected and cherished. We're told that nothing is more important than family, and in whatever form it takes, whether biological or found, it becomes the central pivot on which we live our lives. For his first feature film, Australian director Jayden Stevens expands on his earlier short film of a man who takes this concept to an extreme: constructing and curating the concept of family to an extreme length.
Set in the Ukraine, 'A Family' follows Emerson (Pavlo Lehenkyi), a solitary man who has hired actors to stand in as his family. He writes scripts for them to perform of significant family moments, dictates what they must wear, what they eat and how they dress, and delivers specific instructions on how they should conduct themselves. However, Erika (Liudmyla Zamidra), who has been given the part of his sister, tests the edges of Emerson's instructions and puts the integrity of his fantasy at risk.
Executed with the deadpan restraint of a Yorgos Lanthimos film, 'A Family' certainly rests on a killer comic premise. As we watch Emerson construct this fantasy, it becomes intriguingly unclear what the purpose of this fake family is. Are they there to provide companionship and love (albeit artificial), or are they there to serve Emerson's ego, creating a world where this forgotten man is the centre of attention? Much of the dialogue he writes for them focuses on praising him for his attributes and emulating the clichés of a happy family. So much of what Emerson crafts is an attempt at a pure family experience, where everyone is happy and loving, where gifts are given and moments are shared, but it's also sterile, everyone forced to wear white, all activities are centred around him, everything is staged and captured on video. What he creates is never natural or spontaneous, something that Erika finds herself rebelling against - much not only to Emerson's disapproval but also the rest of the fake family, who just want to get it over with and get paid. There's such great potential here for that delicious mix of comedy, satire and pathos, with many moments delightfully reflecting all three.
It's also a strange but strong decision to shoot in Ukraine, with a Ukrainian cast speaking Ukrainian. The setting, with stark and run-down Soviet-era kit houses with the constant presence of the dreary winter, support Emerson's sense of isolation and add to both the believability and absurdity of the premise. Stevens and cinematographer Tom Swinburn take great care constructing every image, with the placement of a figure inside the frame and landscape speaking to their inner life, either in contrast to their landscape or dominated by it. Dialogue is only there to serve basic narrative needs, and it's one of the best aspects of 'A Family' that so much of the storytelling is left to both cinematic language and the nuances of the performances.
Where 'A Family' runs into problems is in where to go with its intriguing setup. After a while, the ideas begin to feel stretched, and regardless of the aptitude of Stevens' direction or the great work of the cast, it begins to spin its wheels for far too long. There's also significant rhythmic shifts, even when Erika turns the situation on Emerson to help her explore her own sense of family. Even at just over an hour and a half, the film feels like it has overstayed its welcome, and its deadpan tone goes from a positive to a disadvantage. That's not to say that the film needed to drastically alter its intentions - the idea is still a really strong one, and Stevens and his team clearly have all the right ingredients to make a great film on such a small budget, but the insistent rhythm ends up taking us nowhere, so that where the film chooses to go has little emotional impact.
There's such great potential here for that delicious mix of comedy, satire and pathos, with many moments delightfully reflecting all three.
There's a tremendous amount of promise in 'A Family', a film that makes it clear what a potentially exciting new voice Jayden Stevens will be for Australian cinema. It's certainly an ambitious undertaking, and even though it never comes together in the end, that promise is what you're ultimately left with. I'm very keen to see what Stevens does with his next project. Hopefully, it will be something as fascinating and wonderfully absurd as the premise of 'A Family'.