The Canadian film Familia from director Louise Archambault appears to begin its focus with divorced, single parent Michèle (Sylvie Moreau). A brief glimpse of Michèle’s gambling addiction and a short encounter with her current steroid-selling boyfriend/boss, Scott (Claude Despins) illustrate a life of failure, irresponsibility and flux. Unfortunately, Michèle’s bad decisions pour down on to her 14-year-old daughter, Marguerite (Mylène St-Saveur). A confrontation between Michèle and her latest boyfriend results in yet another midnight flit with Michèle and Marguerite’s few belongings stuffed into the car, and what doesn’t fit in the car is tied onto the roof.
Time to hit the road… Michèle, a part-time aerobics instructor, would really like to start afresh in California, but she needs money to fund this make-over. Off to mum’s to plead for cash, but Madeleine (Micheline Lanctôt) doesn’t have any to spare and seems fairly oblivious to Michèle’s dilemma. No matter, Madeleine’s much younger husband, (Jacques L’Heureux) lusts after Michèle, and he’s perfectly happy to offer some cash in exchange for a grope.
Michèle doesn’t make it to California and ends up on the doorstep of childhood friend Janine (Macha Grenon), and here’s where the family dynamics begin to get complicated. Janine is the sister of Marguerite’s father who was married to someone else when he impregnated Michèle. The complicated layers of deceit, self-deceit, and irresponsibility peel back as various family members appear on the scene, and the film raise the old nature vs nature question through its portrayals of three-generations of troubled characters.
As the film plays out, its focus shifts to Janine, nicknamed Hitler by her 13-year-old daughter Gabrielle (Juliette Gosselin), Janine, a successful interior decorator runs a tight ship at her immaculate home and naturally and foreseeably, Michèle’s presence and influence wreaks havoc in Janine’s formerly orderly home. Unfortunately, Janine has too many distractions to see it coming. With her husband Charles (Vincent Graton) largely absent, Janine has good reasons to suspect him of infidelity.
When the multiple crises erupt, the film takes a step back from Michèle’s disastrous choices and Janine’s painful suspicions and takes a look at the larger family picture here. Janine’s mother, Estelle (Patricia Nolin), is a cold fish who believes that all problems can be successfully avoided through shopping while Michèle’s mother desperately tries to stay younger in order to keep her repulsive husband interested. By stepping back and taking a look at this older generation, Michèle and Janine begin to make a lot more sense–and by that I don’t mean that they were inconsistent characters, but rather their backgrounds explain their adult choices.
And since the film takes a look at the older generation, it’s balanced by taking a look at the choices made by Gabrielle and Marguerite. Once again, these two young girls are very much influenced by their mothers, and in one poignant scene Michèle, who manages to largely ignore her daughter, asks Marguerite what she wants out of life. Marguerite replies that it’s very simple–she wants to not be like her mother.
On the down side, the film comes dangerously close to condemning the entire male species–with the sole exception of Marguerite’s grandfather who seems the most stable of the bunch. However, that complaint aside, ultimately Familia, a highly entertaining film offers believable flawed characters caught in various economic and social dilemmas for which there are no easy answers, and we see generations of women paying for the mistakes and the irresponsibility of their parents. By the time, the film concludes, we see the characters overcoming patterns of behaviour, and one scene which includes Janine and her ever-disappearing husband has to be one of the best melt-down scenes ever made.