It’s hard not to be put in mind of Philip Larkin’s scabrous poem “This Be the Verse” while watching “The Family,” and not just for the famous first line about how “mum and dad” mess up your life. Rok Biček’s rough slice of cinema verité is a hard-to-digest record of a young Slovenian man from his mid-teens to mid-20s — from troubled school years into young fatherhood and its unhappy consequences. As unvarnished in its gaze as it is unpolished in lensing, the documentary fascinates by its refusal to simplify a very complicated life. Matej Rajik is neither hero nor antihero, and the family in question is a much more fluid concept than any traditional definition, though the doc’s main takeaway might be that some people are alone no matter who has taken them in.
Even more than Biček’s forceful feature debut “Class Enemy,” the youth-centric director here takes his influences from Romanian cinema’s gritty realism, with the most obvious parallel being Alexander Nanau’s equally disturbing “Toto and His Sisters.” Deeply embedded in Rajik’s life for 10 years, Biček and his camera seem to have become invisible to his subjects, filmed in one-take shots with occasional zooms and pans. The director isn’t afraid to confuse the viewer, and editing isn’t always linear, as if to further underline life’s messiness. Given these stylistic traits, combined with the fitful (at best) empathy that develops, it’s unlikely “The Family” will move beyond documentary festivals; within those events, it should create a buzz.
The opening delivers quite the punch: We’re in the delivery room, facing Barbara Kastelec’s wide-apart legs, as she gives birth to Nia. Pimply faced Rajik is beside her, witnessing the miracle of life. At that moment he’s living with Barbara and her father, Aleksej, a remarkably understanding man who appears to be the only stable adult presence in Rajik’s life, even after things turn sour with Aleksej’s daughter. It’s no wonder Rajik moved away from his own family, since his home life is unusual: His mother, Alenka, and brother, Mitja, are mentally handicapped, and his father, Boris, appears to also be intellectually challenged. How Rajik survived and developed in that household is a mystery, which is why a lengthy scene with a school counselor, who explains that Rajik is quite bright but has some learning and behavioral problems, needs to run its full course.
Things with Barbara sour quickly, and she and Rajik split a few months after Nia’s birth. He goes back to his mother’s house, then starts a relationship with a 14-year-old girl, tries to get a vasectomy, and fights for visitation rights when Barbara doesn’t let him see his daughter. Biček isn’t interested in whether Rajik has a job (how did he afford to take his girlfriend to Paris?), or how he lost his front teeth. The film also studiously avoids any kind of judgment, not when he kills his dog, nor when he dates the 14-year-old, whose mother seems fine with the arrangement. This is why the title, “The Family,” has a power of its own: The word is made fluid, unsettled and insecure. Rajik has never known a cohesive, nurturing family, and it’s surprising he’s so interested in wanting to help raise Nia. However, his desire to get a vasectomy, and his ultimate decision about custody following battles with Barbara, speak more deeply about his self-awareness than anything said aloud.
The last stanza of Larkin’s poem begins, “Man hands on misery to man,” and ends, “don’t have any kids yourself,” making it a far more relevant reference point than the extensive allusions to Michel Foucault that appear in the press notes. Rajik is not a sympathetic character; he’s been dealt a very bad hand, and we can feel sorry for him, but that doesn’t make him an easy person to spend so much time with. Biček’s achievement lies in how he’s captures this hapless kid, stripped of all niceties. He doesn’t get inside Rajik’s head, but he’s muddies himself in the young man’s milieu, and the sensation is at once impressive and disturbing.