It’s hard to imagine the opening shot of Rok Biček’s “The Family” becoming any more stunning than upon first seeing it, being instantly confronted with a young woman named Barbara in the midst of giving birth, with the camera almost closer than the nurses to where the baby’s head is crowning. The focus eventually shifts up to catch Barbara resistant to looking at the infant she’ll name Nia as the father Matej tries to comfort her, awkwardly trying to put his arms around her as he’s standing while she lies in bed with the medical staff all around. The shock of being right in the delivery room as the opening titles end wears off, but the you realize there’s a reason Biček wanted to have Nia be the first person you see in the film, even not fully formed, since the director’s interest is in how a child is subject to the circumstances that they’re entering when they’re born and having choices made for them that they may never overcome.
After leaving the hospital, it is actually Matej who Biček turns his attention to, following the young man in Slovenia for over 10 years as he negotiates being a father in his early twenties and observing him as a teen to see how he was shaped by his own father. With the lingering power of the opening scene a sign of things to come, “The Family” grows in power as Biček jumps back and forth in time, plunging audiences into the situations Matej finds himself in and accumulates in drama as a fuller portrait of the decisions he makes and the influences behind them starts to emerge. Just after the birth of his daughter, it becomes obvious that Matej and Barbara aren’t meant to last as a couple, bickering over how much he’ll use the car (not the last time she’ll allude to his driving prowess to infer his unfitness as a parent), at which point Biček retreats to observe Matej under the roof of his parents’ house.
At home as a teen, Matej appears more interested in being online than engaging with his family, though it becomes apparent why as he doesn’t quite have enough patience to tend to his older brother Mitja, afflicted with down syndrome, and feels conversations with his parents, the brusque Boris and the brittle Alenka, are futile. A visit to a counselor suggests that Matej has learning disabilities, but that he could go to college, an idea that Boris quickly shoots down and after prodding from the counselor, the father begrudgingly says, “We show him all the support that we can” to end the conversation, a statement you come to understand is all too painfully true as this is a family incapable of raising a son of greater intellectual capacity than they are. Once Biček returns to show Matej at 22, he is alone again despite having a daughter to attend to, visiting Barbara who has custody, as well as a new man in her life. While Matej might defy your expectation given his own family background, appearing as a kind and attentive father, he can’t escape their influence in other ways, driven to seek a vasectomy well before being of legal age in Slovenia and finds a teenage girlfriend Eli, with whom he seems to find stability since she seems a little more mature than her age and he’s a little less.
As is often the case with films shot over a period of time as long as “The Family,” Biček gleans insight into Matej’s personal evolution that would be impossible to depict otherwise, but a compelling narrative takes hold outside of his maturation as you see how support systems can form and crumble around him, as he’s asked to be a man of the house with his own family after Boris dies and coming to regard Eli’s mother as a more trusted confidant than his own. Apparently Biček spent two-and-a-half years after filming just to simply crack the film’s structure and the effort yields as much emotional directness as shooting “The Family” in a cinema verite style, as scenes from the past and present form the thoughts inside Matej’s head that determine his actions in the next and the director finds himself inside moments that you can’t believe have been caught with the camera. Although the film isn’t always easy to watch as a result, either aesthetically or dramatically, it’s an exceptionally rewarding endeavor, making one feel as if you’ve grown a little just by having the privilege to watch a young man do the same.