B-

Family Law

B-

Family Law

Director: Daniel Burman
Runtime: 102 minutes
Cast: Daniel Hendler, Arturo Goetz, Julieta Díaz

Cédric Klapisch's L'Auberge Espagnole showed that an art film with a sitcom heart could not only be tolerable, but also illuminate the ways we're often drawn to the clever and cutesy when we want to understand relationships. But what works on TV doesn't always work at feature-length, as proved both by Klapisch's sequel Russian Dolls, and now Daniel Burman's Family Law. Burman's film stars Daniel Hendler as a fumbly law professor simultaneously dealing with the legacy of his father Arturo Goetz—a legend in the Argentinean legal community—and the arrival of his own son. As Hendler discovers that he doesn't know as much about his dad as he thought he did, he spends more and more time at his son's "Swiss" kindergarten, where the teachers expect him to be the kind of involved, playful pop that his father never was.

Burman develops Family Law's characters well, setting up the contrast between Goetz—an easygoing conformist described by his son as "a Zelig among lawyers"—and Hendler, who's uncomfortable pretty much all of the time, except when he's standing in front of a class explaining why no one knows anything conclusively. But though Family Law deals with some essential mysteries about how fathers, sons, and grandfathers all interact, Burman doesn't force those mysteries into any kind of strong narrative shape; instead, he lets them settle into a string of dryly farcical situations. And while Family Law is well-shot, it's not spectacularly well-shot, or involving in any conventional cinematic way.

Worse, Burman's decision to fill nearly every second of the film with Hendler's voice—either in dialogue or in narration—constrains Family Law to the point of view of an indecisive navel-gazer. So while it's hard not to be moved by the revelations Hendler has about fatherhood as an institution and an occupation, the way he arrives at his awakening never feels at all surprising. In the press notes for Family Law, Burman says that as a new father himself, he finds constructing a parental identity to be a kind of creative act, like making a film. His pensiveness on the subject is reflected in this movie, and not in a good way. He's completely overthought something natural and mysterious.