Issue 72 (2021)

Il’ia Aksenov: The Relatives (Rodnye, 2021)

reviewed by Tatiana Efremova © 2021

rodnyeA true highlight of Il’ia Aksionov and Zhora Kryzhovnikov’s comedy The Relatives (Rodnye, 2021) is the audition episode featuring the star of the 1990’s Russian boy band Ivanushki International and the millennial indie-pop singer Monetochka cast as an aspiring songwriter and the family’s youngest daughter, Nastia. Harassed by the girl’s father into listening, the middle-aged pop star gives the teenage character about three minutes to perform and some scathing feedback to digest. Nastia’s failure to impress is only expected—playing in the middle of the street while her elder brother holds the electric piano on his shoulders sounds like a particularly overwhelming audition. Yet, the whimsical setup is not the reason why the venture has been doomed from the very start. Playing a tongue-in-cheek younger version of herself, Monetochka performs her early songs that went viral on YouTube because of their humorous appeal and simple DIY aesthetics. Unsurprisingly, the amateur energy resounding online seems foreign to a professional singer from the 90’s band whose big hits have been written by a producer team. While it is clear that Monetochka-Nastia is destined to fail, it is also evident that she does so not for lack of ability but because she performs in a foreign territory. In The Relatives, incongruity of context becomes a narrative tool: we repeatedly see characters seeking to bridge a generational gap by winning an away competition and failing to succeed until difference is addressed.

rodnyeThe plot of The Relatives revolves around a family’s journey to Grushinskii festival, the famous guitar music festival annually held outside Samara. The family of six has to let go of their immediate plans (ranging from a volleyball game to leaving for Canada) as they embark on a road-trip helping their middle-aged father realize his long-life dream of performing a song on the Grushinskii stage. While the premise of the film seems suspiciously familiar to the American classic Little Miss Sunshine (2006) following a family trip with a similar ambition, The Relatives is a profoundly local post-Soviet story uneasily hiding a generational drama under the guise of a road-movie comedy.

The scriptwriter and creative producer of the movie, Zhora Kryzhovnikov, has established a reputation for doing original work within mainstream formats. His early films Kiss Them All! (Gor’ko!, 2013) and Kiss Them All! 2 (Gor’ko! 2, 2014) have been universally popular with critics and audiences for balancing relatable stories with effective comic conventions. His recent work on TV, the mini-series Call DiCaprio! (Zvonite DiKaprio!, 2018), is a familial drama about acceptance with elements of social satire. Kryzhovnikov continues to explore many of the themes from his early comedies in The Relatives, a film that oscillates between comedy and drama and features characters who try to come to terms with their familial history.

rodnyeCasting the country’s leading comic actor, Sergei Burunov, as the erratic and manipulative father of the family is a successful choice, though it does not make the movie funny by default. The Relatives has more than a few gags to offer—from the awkwardly familiar stories of successful cancer treatment with kombucha to slapstick episodes featuring offensive antisemitic humor. While most of the gags strike the viewer as painfully recognizable, embarrassing, and somewhat moving, few are straightforwardly funny in a classic sitcom way.

The category of “road-movie” fits The Relatives a little better. As a genre, the road-movie commonly features a story of escape (e.g. Bonnie and Clyde by Arthur Penn, 1967) or a quest for new ways of life (in the style of Jack Kerouac). Thinking about its capacity to recreate a “situation where there are no constraints, spatially and in terms of the narrative,” Birgit Beumers considers it a potentially suitable form “for post-Soviet cinema in search of its new ‘Russian’ identity” (Beumers 2016: 30). At the same time, Beumers registers a relative scarcity of road-movies in the post-Soviet context and shows how post-Soviet roads often end with impasse, entrapment, or death.

rodnyeIn The Relatives, Kryzhovnikov seems to capitalize on the exploratory potential of the road-movie to a certain extent. While the journey might eventually end with death, it is prompted by an attempt to escape it: learning about a brain tumor, the father no longer wants to postpone his festival dream. Throughout the trip, the characters inadvertently reflect on their identity, yet the lack of spatial constraints does not necessarily yield the emergence of new models of life. Rather, the characters are continuously encouraged to engage with their past.

rodnyeFocusing on smell, taste, and sound, these engagements are curiously grounded in the affective realm. Thus, passing through Saratov, the father takes the crowd to the apartment block where he used to live as a kid. After reciting a randomly motivated verse by Sergei Esenin, he coerces the family into checking out the stinky smell of the communal entrance hallway, which, according to his memories, has not changed a bit. Confused but reluctant to object, the wife and children engage in the comic ritual of remembrance. In another episode of bonding, the father insists on taking his son Sania (Semen Treskunov), who is about to emigrate to Canada, to a local bread factory at dawn. Smelling the air and claiming that this is “where the Motherland starts,” the father breaks into the shop and steals a whole tray of freshly baked bread despite Sania’s attempts at protest. Fleeing from the factory dogs to the sound of the patriotically charged hit song “London, Good-bye,” father and son share a loaf of bread and mumble with enjoyment. The communal adventure brings out Sania’s confession about his own childhood theft. In The Relatives, taste, as well as smell, allow for unlocking memories of the past, familial bonding, and a sense of national belonging rooted somewhere between embarrassment and embracement.

rodnyeIn his study of patriotic rituals in post-Soviet Russia, Serguei Oushakine notes that contemporary practices of belonging are based on affective engagement with history (Oushakine 2013). Borrowing a term from Roman Jacobson, Oushakine talks about cultural aphasia, oftentimes precluding the creation of any straightforward narrative or language that would allow one to process the past (Oushakine 2000). Showcasing characters affectively relating to their familial history through smell, taste, and sound, the producers of The Relatives turn aphasia into a cinematic method of picturing post-Soviet belonging.

While channeling smell and taste cinematically may present a certain challenge, capitalizing on sound is effectively off limits. In The Relatives, relating largely happens with the help of music. The movie features a series of false start performances as family members try to communicate by singing for each other and, like in the sequence featuring Nastia’s unlucky audition, failing at it. Thus, after first dismissing a contemporary pop song enjoyed by his daughter, the father unexpectedly chooses to perform it for his own father (Sergei Shakurov) and the relatives he has not seen for years. Unfamiliar with the context, the audience hates the performance. Just like his own children always struggle to satisfy the father’s expectations, he himself can never be enough for the grandfather of the clan.

rodnyeThis vicious circle gets resolved after the father fails his dream performance at the guitar festival. Drowning his sorrow in a bowl of Buryat-style dumplings, he delivers a powerful speech about their difference from the Russian pelmeni, claiming the dumplings should be appreciated for what they are, not measured unfavorably against something else. This acceptance of a possibility of difference inspires Sania to perform his father’s song for the festival crowd, finally bridging the perpetuating generational gap.

rodnyeAlthough the soundtrack of the film has been widely criticized for its excessive eclecticism, there are arguments to be made for the compelling lack of hierarchy we see in the producers’ engagement with the (post)-Soviet music tradition. The soundscape of the movie includes references to the late-Soviet anti-establishment bard music, the Soviet underground rock scene, as well as Soviet and post-Soviet mainstream radio hits. All of these competing genres constitute the contemporary Russian playground for musical experimentation and can provide enough space for affective identification as well as critical engagement.

Yet some music choices indeed sound problematic. Functioning as the affective climax of the film, the final song (presumably written by the father and eventually performed by Sania) also arguably presents the lowest conceptual point of the movie. Written by the established producer Igor’ Matvienko, the song was recorded by the tandem of Sergei Burunov and the band Lyube, well-known on the post-Soviet music scene for their military and patriotic songs.

rodnyevAs the characters of the movie hear Sania sing, they all rush to the festival stage. His earnest performance moves the mother, the father, and Nastia to tears; it warms the heart of the grand-father (a stern former official of the military intelligence services); and inspires the elder brother (fittingly wearing a T-shirt with “Danila Bagrov”) to shout out “This is my brother!” into the crowd. Featuring close-ups of the family members in tears, the movie manipulates the viewers into a visceral response, making it almost impossible for the audience to refrain from crying. Yet the worst part of the scene is not the obvious melodramatic overkill. Referencing folklore tropes and allusions to the victory in World War II, the lyrics of the song emphasize the line of paternal filiation: Used to be a son/ I will become a father/ Taking after the grand-father in my looks. Performed by Sania, the song clearly mends the broken connection between the three generations of the family through the traditional idea of paternal lineage.

rodnyeExploring the themes of paternal legacy on the Soviet and post-Soviet screen, the editors of Cinepaternity: Fathers and Sons in Soviet and Post-Soviet Film draw particular attention to ‘the transition periods’ like the Thaw and Perestroika, when the establishing filiation and continuity presented an ideological problem (Goscilo and Hashamova 2010). Lasting for more than two decades, the Putin era seems to be on the opposite side of the spectrum—if anything, it is characterized by little rupture and lack of succession. Featuring Soviet and post-Soviet families, contemporary movies from Andrei Konchalovskii’s monochromatic drama Dear Comrades! (Dorogie Tovarishchi!, 2020) to the recent comedy Pops (Batia, 2021) starring Vladimir Vdovichenko, present characters more invested in processing familial memory than in establishing paternal lineage.

rodnyeZhora Kryzhovnikov’s characters, too, are actively trying to process post-Soviet generational memory. Throughout the movie, we see the younger generation, represented by Nastia and Sania, learning about their family history, acknowledging its reverberations but not allowing them to define their experience. Separating themselves from the parental family model based on codependency, Sania and his fiancée Sonia (Katerina Bekker) are building a different kind of relationship. Writing humorous songs about dysfunctional families fighting over Crimea is Nastia’s apt way of processing post-Soviet history.

The final timelessly patriotic song highlighting the legacy of paternal continuity does not give justice to the entirety of the characters’ efforts. The movie continues to force some of its characters to play on a foreign field, but like forcing Monetochka to perform for the middle-aged pop star, this does not help convincingly resolve generational differences. Ending a satirically unsettling road-trip with a politically comfortable feel-good statement, The Relatives makes yet another post-Soviet road end with entrapment.

Tatiana Efremova,
New York University

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Works Cited

Beumers, Birgit. 2016. “The road to nowhere? Destinations in recent Russian cinema.”Eurasia 2.0: Post-Soviet Geopolitics and New Media, ed. Mark Bassin und Mikhail Suslov, pp. 25-40. Lexington UP.

Goscilo, Helena, Hashamova Yana. 2010. “Introduction Cinepaternity: The Psyche and Its Heritage.” Cinepaternity: Fathers and Sons in Soviet and Post-Soviet Film, pp.1-20. Indiana University Press.

Oushakine, Serguei. 2000. “In the State of Post-Soviet Aphasia: Symbolic Development in Contemporary Russia.” Europe-Asia Studies 52 (6): 991-1016.

Oushakine, Serguei. 2013. “Remembering in Public: On the Affective Management of History.” Ab Imperio 1: 269-302.

The Relatives, Russia, 2021
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Il’ia Aksenov
Script: Zhora Kryzhovnikov, Aleksei Kazakov
DoP: Anton Zenkevich, Mikhail Solov’ev
Producer: Ilya Stewart, Aleksei Kazakov, Pavel Buria, Zhora Kryzhovnikov, Murad Osmann, Il’ia Dzhincharadze, Elizaveta Chalenko, Daniil Makhort, Aleksei Grishin
Production Company: Hype Film, TNT, Columbia Pictures
Music: Igor’ Matvienko
Cast: Sergei Burunov, Irina Pegova, Semen Treskunov, Monetochka, Katerina Bekker, Sergei Shakurov

Il’ia Aksenov: The Relatives (Rodnye, 2021)

reviewed by Tatiana Efremova © 2021

Updated: 2021