Like so many young artists, film-maker Nira Burstein has taken the advice to write – or in this case, film – what she knows, so for her first feature she’s turned the camera on her own family, a troubled brood from the outer suburbs of New York City. Although Nira holds the camera herself for much of the time, she edits in home movie footage from many years ago which shows how dramatically time and stress have worn the family down.
The Burstein patriarch Uri is definitely a character, either the film’s villain, comic relief or hero depending on where you stand. A former realtor and part-time guitarist, he wears a yarmulke most of the time and invokes his Jewish religious beliefs as an excuse when he doesn’t want to attend the wedding of his daughter Adina, Mira’s sister, to two non-binary people with whom she’s decided to form a lasting throuple. Uri’s wife Raya, a former musician herself, earned a master’s from Columbia and once practised as an occupational therapist. But around the time that eldest daughter Judy, variously diagnosed with Tourette syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder, became “sick” with unspecified problems, Raya also had a breakdown and checked into a psychiatric facility. Professionals, according to Raya and Uri, have labelled her bipolar or schizophrenic, but Uri at least is less interested in clinical diagnoses than with how to cope with Raya and Judy’s behaviours and complains about them constantly. (He notes that even celebrity physician/neurologist Oliver Sacks examined Judy and couldn’t tell what exactly was wrong with her.)
Whatever the clinical backstory, this is one very dysfunctional family. Long-held resentments are never more than a millimetre under the surface and a general lack of routine or ability to cope means Uri, Raya and Charlotte live in squalor, with dirty dishes, clutter and cat poo in every room. Mira’s non-judgmental, affectionate view of them has tenderness and an eye for their absurdities; it’s impossible not to see parallels with Grey Gardens, another film about an eccentric family living with cats in the greater New York metropolitan conurbation. That said, Burstein doesn’t yet have the same film-making instincts as the Maysles brothers, and this family seems a lot more unhappy than the daffy Beales of Grey Gardens which makes for depressing viewing.