[Sundance Review] HUMAN FACTORS
HUMAN FACTORS l Courtesy of Sundance
HUMAN FACTORS is a slow build drama that skillfully conveys discomfort through the cast’s stellar acting, the direction from director Ronny Trocker, and music. As an audience, there is initial confusion regarding when we are; however, once and if you catch on, you not only understand the importance but settle in for the experience. Stories of families coming undone are not new, but the acting and direction help to make this memorable.

Synopsis: At the advertising agency they co-own, French-German couple Nina and Jan have signed a new politically-charged client, forcing them to confront their clashing priorities. To escape mounting tensions at work, they whisk their kids, Max and Emma, away to their seaside vacation home. But what’s meant to be an idyllic off-season retreat turns sinister when a mysterious home invasion sets everything off balance. Though at first, the aftermath brings the family closer, as they try to put the incident into perspective, their accounts of what took place begin to unravel alongside the couple’s faith in each other.

While films surrounding advertising companies have been made before, HUMAN FACTORS is focused on a couple who run the business, as well as the unraveling of their relationship as priorities vary. Sometimes challenges create tension, but the conflict here amplifies pre-existing tensions in their marriage. The focus isn’t the advertising, nor the dispute between the couple regarding their political client. That, along with a home invasion, erodes their faith in each other creating a sea of doubt that ebbs and flows. It’s about the aftermath of a decision and how that one decision can open up far-reaching consequences. Each scene, conversation, and look has the surface discussion but there is an undercurrent of resentment, hostility and distrust conveyed that continues to build.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Klemens Hufnagl

Trocker’s direction was a huge joy, particularly the use of continuous shots and changes in height to emphasize the particular perspective we were viewing the events from. Everyone’s point of view—Nina, Jan, Max, Emma—is present. The greatest challenge is effectively keeping track of where and, especially, when the story is and, at times it is a struggle. You may not catch it all in one sitting, but that is sometimes the benefit and fun of rewatches.

The acting, especially between Nina (Sabine Timoteo) and Jan (Mark Waschke) may have us reaching into our memory banks for not only past relationships but past encounters with our couple friends where we see the tension in a simple look or phrase. Especially Nina’s responses that give the “I’m not in the mood to get into this” vibe. Though we understand her anger because when, as a couple with a business, you agree not to do something and one party proceeds to do it without consulting, it hurts both in a business and personal sense. It fractures trust and leaves room for more problems that almost always render the choice not worth it.

Not only that, there’s resentment along the way men and women are viewed in business. Nina is mad that Jan wants to take on a political client, but she is also angered by the way this news was shared in a publication which simply said “Jan and his wife” as though she is not an entity in her own right, merely an extension of her partner as well as the fact that they knew before her. The way her anger is trivialized by Jan and he tells her it’s pretty much a done deal, does nothing to bridge the divide. The reason being Jan also has anger toward Nina but rather than discussing it, he shields it by blaming her for other things, such as when their son Max wanders off as though they aren’t both parents present in the relationship.

HUMAN FACTORS is about a relationship that becomes unsalvageable due to a breakdown in communication that was there prior to the home invasion. It’s about what we refuse to see, and how quickly things unravel when we are forced to look at ourselves and each other. Perspectives tell our part, but communication gives the full picture and nothing can progress without both. I’m still not 100% sure of how the film ends because of the confusion regarding the timeline but that’s my own desperate need to know. as the film intentionally focuses on perspective more so than timelines.  I may have to take a photo of what each partner wears to effectively understand how the film ultimately ends, but the confusion is part and parcel of the familial experience where we are riddled with doubt. A definite recommendation!

HUMAN FACTORS had its world premiere Friday, January 29th, 2021, at the Sundance Film Festival.

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