I don't know if you can blame "National Lampoon's Vacation," because 1983 was a long time ago, but lately there sure has been a resurgence in dysfunctional family road-trip films. "RV" and "Little Miss Sunshine" came out in 2006, while two years earlier two foreign films tackled the same subject: "Only Human" and "Rolling Family." In the former, the journey was just a short journey to spend the holiday with family and more political than anything, but "Rolling Family" is "Little Miss Sunshine" without the beauty pageant, and "Vacation" without the dead aunt.
If it wasn't for the glut of similar films, this one from Pablo Trapero would be a charmer. It has the integrity of a film that's heavily autobiographical, with Trapero drawing on his own family RV vacations he remembers from his childhood. But he doesn't stop there. In a key casting decision, he decided to give his own grandma the role of the matriarch. Now, this raises an interesting question. How does a director tell his 83-year-old grandmother when she's not doing a scene right? My guess is, he didn't need to. Graciana Chironi is wonderfully crusty as the matriarch of a Buenos Aires family who insists that the whole family accompany her to the wedding of her sister's daughter in Misiones, near the Brazilian border. Now, if this were an American film, it would end right there, with children and grandchildren moaning, "Why do we have to drive 600 miles in a crappy 1956 Chevy Viking camper just because Grandma is going to be matron-of-honor at her niece's wedding?" At the very least, they would have backed out when they saw how many people were going to be crammed into this tiny RV. And we're talking tiny. If they had attempted to cross a border, it would have looked like they were trying to smuggle a load of people across.
Here's the head count: Emilia (Chironi), her daughter Marta (Liliana Apuro) and her husband, Oscar (Bernardo Forteza), whom she calls "Fatty" and who owns the RV. They have a little boy, a hormone-raging teenaged boy (Raul Viñona), and an older "bad seed" daughter Paola (Laura Glave), who shows up unexpectedly with her baby. That's enough to fill a camper right there, but then there's Emilia's other daughter, Claudia (Ruth Dobel) and her husband, Ernesto (Carlos Resta) and their daughter, Yanina (Marianela Pedano) and her friend Nadia (Leila Gomez). That's eleven people--twelve, counting Paola's loser druggie boyfriend (Federico Esquerro), who has to ride in the camper after his motorcycle is trashed.
Trapero doesn't shy away from the sheer boredom of a drive like that, conveying a lot of information in a brief montage that shows them squirming uncomfortably or trying to sleep without being slept upon. There's also the expected car trouble, a problem with the police, and the usual road-trip gaffs (like bad motels). But what makes this film work are two triangles that provide much of the tension. Shades of "Arrested Development," it turns out that cousins Gustavo and Yanina are attracted to each other, but then Nadia also competes for Gustavo's attention. That little icky romantic farce (they're cousins) has a parallel with Ernesto, who apparently had a thing with/for Marta, and seems intent on starting something again, right under the watchful eyes of Oscar.
Filmed on location in Argentina, "Rolling Family" covers a lot of visual ground. But none of the scenery of lush or rugged countrysides can compare with Trapero's domestic scenes, especially the outdoor ones in which the women engage in such daily activities as gardening, laundry, and working around the yard. Scenes like these add as much interest and charm as the two triangles add narrative comedy-drama.
Trapero does some interesting things with his scene transitions, but at times he tends to overdo it a bit. Many scenes are introduced with an extreme close-up: a parakeet's head, a turtle's head, hands on the steering wheel, a knife chopping onions, fingers manipulating a carburetor lever, etc. Sometimes they seem right on, while other times they have a real random feel to them. But scene transitions are his thing, and for the most part that adds a distinctive (albeit heavy-handed) style to the film, and they're not just limited to visuals. As music crescendos near the end of one scene, a quick cut to the next scene begins with that close-up of the carburetor, with a rev of the engine taking over just as the music ends. It's hard not to notice things like this, but it all lends a nice texture to a film that's ultimately an engaging one that gives us a pretty good sense of the dynamics of an Argentinean family.
Surprisingly, the video quality is pretty decent--and I say "surprisingly" because so much of the film is shot in natural light. Some of the long shots are among the most grainy, but by and large there's just a slight element of grain throughout the movie, and very good color saturation. The film is presented in what appears to be a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Another pleasant surprise is that the audio is a robust Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, with more rear-speaker action than I'd have expected and a bright treble that's noticeable especially during musical interludes.
Aside from the U.S. and Argentinean theatrical trailers (and those advertising previews dubbed for other studio films), the only feature is a mid-length "making of" featurette that does a pretty good job of giving you a sense of how the director and his grandmother relate to the film. There are even scrapbook photos of Trapero as a child, posing with family in front of their RV, and we learn that he's used Grandma in films three times before. In the film's spirit of cramming, there's a lot of information and insight packed into a relatively short feature.
Like "Little Miss Sunshine," this family road-trip film gives us a cross-generational brood that's driving an RV long-distance on a mission. If anything, "Rolling Family" proves that Americans don't hold the patent on familial dysfunction, but it's also a sincere personal essay about writer-director Trapero's Argentinean family.