It's an extraordinary documentary, for as it records the growth and development of a child, Anya, from the time she is a toddler to when she becomes a mother herself, it also captures the way Anya challenges her parents to grow as individuals and as parents.
Filmed by her father Marian and his filmmaking students over thirty years, what begins as an ordinary home movie when Anya is a toddler gathers depth as we follow her through her life, witnessing both enjoyable and painful moments--her first crush on a boy when she is still in grade school, distress over a teacher's comments that she talks too much in class, anguish over her parents' negative attitude toward her boyfriends, and joy at being accepted by a college.
One of the first images of the film shows the Marzynski family moving into their first home in the United States, having relocated to Rhode Island from Poland. Soon after, we observe the emotionally overwrought Anya's fifth birthday party in that home, and then follow the family on other moves--to the countryside of Illinois and to the south side of Chicago. We see typical parent-child scenes--Anya's father attempting to calm her down or convince her to work harder in school; Anya and her mother arguing about Anya's friends and her lack of financial responsibility. We also see Anya challenging her parents--objecting to her father's lack of belief in her when he calls her "hopeless," protesting her mother's "racism" when she is uncomfortable with Anya's African American friends and boyfriends. By the end of the film, we see that Anya's challenges to her parents, over time, have caused them to rethink their positions and, ultimately, to accept and affirm Anya as the person she is.
In the background of Anya's growth and development is the story of her parents.
Marian, an award-winning filmmaker and professor of film, is also a Jewish Holocaust survivor who lost most of his family during the war. Smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto, he had been taken in by a Catholic priest who hid him in a home for Catholic orphans. Anya's mother Regine, an architect, was raised in a strict and conservative Polish Catholic family and faced their strong opposition to her intermarriage.
Having been deprived of a normal family life, Marian appears fascinated and unsettled by his daughter's childhood. Documenting it is a way for him to examine what he never had. He dotes on Anya and spends many hours with her, all filmed in an in-your-face style, with the camera up close as they take baths together (when she is young), dance to rock and roll together, and gradually, as she gets older, have deep personal conversations. The closeness they achieve, the kinds of conversations they are able to have, even on camera, are rarely if ever shown on film.
The film doesn't explore in any depth how Anya's mixed religious background affected her, except to show Anya, when she is in grade school, discussing with her older brother whether or not she is Jewish. Anya says that her father told her that she is Jewish, but her brother says that she isn't because she does not "speak the Jewish language." Later, Anya is sent to a Jewish day school, but then has to leave it as she has too much difficulty with Hebrew. Years later, when Anya is suspended from the University of Illinois due to poor grades, her father sends her to Israel for a year, hoping that this experience will help her find herself. Perhaps the year does help, as Anya seems more grounded afterwards, although the film doesn't dwell on whether or not being in Israel affected her sense of herself as a Jew.
After returning from Israel Anya attends a community college and then becomes an elementary school teacher. Observing her growth and maturity on the job is illuminating. Clearly, in the debate between nature and nurture, parents have some influence on a child, but a person's life experiences also have a tremendous impact.
Similar in certain ways to Michael Apted's excellent documentary series, (7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up and 42 Up), which filmed a group of British school children every seven years to see how they developed, Anya captures other effects of nature and nurture in Anya's life. Her lifelong difficulty in school seems to be an example of "nature," while her choice of only African American boyfriends appears to result from "nurture," as she attended a public school that was 90% African American.
After several interracial relationships, Anya meets and falls in love with Dominique, a Catholic man of Creole heritage who is a colleague of hers at an international school in Paris. We see how she is able to be patient with Dominique when he, like her mother, worries about things, whereas he is able to think things through and not react impetuously, a help to Anya.
As Anya and Dominique begin to plan their wedding, his parents request that a Catholic priest perform the ceremony; Anya agrees if there can also be a rabbi.
By the time Anya marries and then has a son two years later, we have witnessed Anya and her parents age, grow, and mature. Anya is abl