The new year starts on a strong note thanks to the documentary “Communion” from Polish film director Anna Zamecka.
The audience becomes the fifth member of the Kaczanowski family headed by 14-year old Ola who has been forced to take the maternal role after both parents become incapable of caring for their children. The film captures Ola’s daily struggles as she helps her 13-year old autistic brother Nikodem prepare for his first communion while their father Marek attempts to grapple with his drinking problem. The mother, Magda, bailed on the family years earlier, moved in with another man and had another child.
The Oscar-shortlisted doc skims the surface of reality filmmaking like Chloé Zhao’s recent film “The Rider.” Zhao based her drama on the true story of saddle bronc rider Brady Jandreau who appears in the film as himself in a fictionalized story of actual events. Zhao found it easier to get Jandreau, his family and friends on board for the film by avoiding the term “documentary.” If you’re playing a “fictionalized” version of yourself, accountability is placed on the backburner even when the narrative is based on factual events. In a similar vein, Zamecka followed the Kaczanowski family for a year while writing the outline for the script before cameras were brought in to shoot the film. This form of semi-fictionalized filmmaking proves once again captivating as Ola becomes our guide to her family’s story.
The film opens as Nikodem struggles with a task that most of take for granted, putting on a belt. “Wrong, wrong, wrong again!” he shouts as frustration sets in. We then see Ola going through her brother’s backpack, tossing books on the floor that he doesn’t need. She’s looking for his religion notebook which she finds full of sketches about Jesus and dinosaurs. Nikodem’s autism lets his imagination run wild yet by the end of Zamecka’s film it's evident that Nikodem is a very bright and intelligent young man. His childlike behavior may fool some people but there are several scenes in the film that prove he knows exactly what’s happening to his family.
The audience can’t help but empathize with Ola’s predicament, she’s not the first teenager with dysfunctional parents. We watch her clean and cook, help Nikodem study for his Holy Communion, coach her father before the social worker arrives, and chat on a cell phone with her mother. She bears the responsibilities of an adult but there are also several scenes that exhibit how Ola craves to be a normal teen. It’s refreshing to see her cut loose at school dance but when she wants to go swimming she has to beg her father to step up and be a parent by watching over Nikodem so she can hang out with her friends until 9:30 p.m., the time when most teens in America are just stepping out.
“Communion” enthralls the viewer primarily because we care about this family. We root for the day that Ola can live a worry-free life and just be a teenager. When Magda suddenly surfaces back in the family home with a newborn baby in tow there is hope on the horizon but by then the audience has been conditioned to expect the worse.