An uncomfortable family Christmas is the setting for this unconventional Finnish debut

Family Time

Source: Berlin International Film Festival

‘Family Time’

Dir/scr. Tia Kouvo. Finland/Sweden. 2023. 116mins

Tia Kouvo’s debut feature is well lived-in. She has clearly spent a lot of time with her dysfunctional family, and not just because of the 2018 short film on which this is based. Very unhappy in their own way, to quote their Russian neighbour Tolstoy, the Finnish clan that congregates at the grandparents’ snowy farm for a thoroughly miserable Christmas is clearly well-known to its creator. With a tone running uncomfortably between dour and deadpan, Family Time isn’t always likeable, but it is suffocatingly recognisable. It’s too long, but so is Christmas Day. Sweatily claustrophobic, it should come with a warning to only watch once your own festive season is firmly in the rearview mirror. 

A distinctive style that indicates a young director feeling her way to an interesting future

Kouvo holds her camera at a distance and keeps it rolling long after scenes would seem to have come to a natural end, as three generations of family members open the door to the central chalet. At first, they’re shot straight on, heads cut off, just voices, and it probably takes too long to figure out who they all are in this muted light, if we ever properly do. Its low-key setting and muted airing of themes overly-familiar to cinema will naturally make the audience for Family Time very self-selecting, but there are real pleasures to be had here – and a style that distinguishes Kouvo’s debut. 

The length is there to lattice the film up to an unforgettable visit from Santa Claus and then pull it back to the aftermath. Many will feel this scene alone is worth the price of admission. Elsewhere, Family Time is deliberately low-key. At first, the droning dialogue (an endless argument about the difference between butter spread and margarine, for example) seems to point to a classic family-set up. Grandfather Lasse (Tom Wenzel) sits on his armchair with the TV playing sports, sucking on a beer. His long-suffering wife Ella (Leena Uotila) may bustle about in the kitchen, but her preparations have been rudimentary at best – the casseroles, the tree, the table, all sit neglected. Siblings Susanna (Ria Kataja) and Helena (Elina Knihtila) haven’t progressed past childhood one-upmanship and they’re palpably not keen on either of their parents. A spouse and a teenage son look on, ambivalently, as the younger grandchildren start to protest Lasse’s staggering around, repeatedly ruining their Christmases.

He’s about to kill another one dead, too, as Kouvo’s screenplay teases at this family’s past, living in the shadow of an alcoholic and former merchant marine. Nothing too dramatic – she saves that for the arrival of Father Christmas – but incongruous scenes include Ella and daughters holding up a senseless, partially-clothed Lasse and trying to sit him at the Christmas table. Again, only the young children point out the pointlessness of this. What kind of past have these ordinary people lived through, that this seems normal to them? Every now and then Kouvo takes us to the sauna, as family members let off steam but the fog of heat only adds to the claustrophobia of the piece.

Don’t look to her screenplay for archetypes either. Ella may seem like the long-suffering victim, but after 116 minutes of her banal ramblings, you feel for Lasse too, as the film hints as to his own undercurrents.

Family Time is a film that makes very interesting choices around a fairly conventional structure. Visually, it loves the long shot which makes the viewer always look for clues in the chalet’s dark interior, and these are contrasted with the wide white exteriors in the beautiful Finnish snowscape. Tonally, it’s nuanced and consistently holds a fine line where you’re never quite sure what is funny and what is horribly tragic. It’s a trope to compare every Finnish director to Aki Kaurismaki, but there is that same deadpan air to Family Time – and a distinctive style that indicates a young director feeling her way to an interesting future.

Production company: Aamu Film

International sales: The March Factory,

Producers: Jussi Rantamaki, Emilia Haukka

Screenplay: Tia Kouvo

Cinematogaphy: Jesse Jalonen

Editing: Okku Nuutilainen

Production design: Nanna Hirvonen

Music: Sveinung Nygaard

Main cast: Tom Wenzel, Leena Uotila, Elina Knihtila, Ria Kataja, Jarkko Pajunen. Elli Paajanen