Review: The Custody (2014)

The Custody, original title La Garde, is a film that proves that a straightforward simple premise that opens an avenue to examine characters in the tensest circumstances possible can be highly effective. It’s a low concept that’s high on drama, character studying and features two tremendous performances by Paul Doucet and Antoine L’Écuyer.

The premise is as follows: Luc (Doucet) is frustrated with the restrictions that have been placed on his custody rights. His disobeyed court orders about visitation have lead to restraining orders and the like. Risking jail time he has continued to follow his son and resolves to take him hunting so they can be closer whether Samuel (L’Écuyer) wants to go or not.

In seeing the trailer or reading the synopsis you know certain things are givens. However, the foreboding that’s built in through the edit and the low-angle shots and urban color palette of the early shots really carries the film until there is a shift both in the tone and setting.

However, with the more traditional thriller template somewhat out the window once the backdrop is sylvan there is a fascinating shift, as despite the high stakes circumstances that come to the fore the characters continue to prod one another and seek answers. In certain ways they are still duty-bound as father and son, but the estrangement and conflict continues to influence proceedings. There are no facile resolutions, no epiphanies where unrealistic understanding can be achieved.

With all the givens in place be they character- or narrative-driven there could be a great temptation to expand the world and cutaway, to raise the stakes and detract from the central focus of the narrative: the father/son conflict. This temptation is wisely resisted and the world stays small.

Much of the storytelling in this film is visual and that is appreciated. However, to reach the heights this film does it needs superlative performances. It gets those in spades. Doucet carries himself as a man who is clearly flawed but not cartoonishly evil, a man whose motivations can be clearly understood even if his actions can’t always be condoned. When he fills in those blanks with backstory the film, and his performance just becomes richer.

It’s so unique to find two performances by an actor at such different ages in development as a child performer being released in the same year. When I saw It’s Not Me, I Swear recently I saw that L’Écuyer had tremendous potential. With that film waiting so long to see American distribution I did not realize that I had seen him in a music video before. In this part he’s about four years older than he was when he showed such promise in It’s Not Me, I Swear. That promise is followed through with tremendous alacrity and poise. His presence on film, this one especially, is a forceful one indeed.

I’ve been quite careful to try and preserve much of the surprise in this tale. Rest assured that what you now know of this film is only the very beginning where things set-up. There are changes afoot throughout and it is a tremendously engaging drama that is worth seeking out.

8/10

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Review: It’s Not Me, I Swear

It’s Not Me, I Swear is a film that takes a tonally difficult and topically potentially controversial tale and handles its narrative with a level of sophistication that allows its dark whimsy, humor and introversion to radiate outward. The tone, and the blueprint for the story, are set almost immediately with the use of voice over narration in which the protagonist, Léon , waxes philosophical on his interpretation of life at the tender age of eleven, how he finds it futile and has tried to end it on several occasions.

However, considering the fact that this is the film that Phillippe Falardeau would tackle just prior to Monsieur Lazhar, it’s not impossible to see how he would be able to balance the tenuous tone and also be able to handle children acting in rather complex and profound roles. In a quirk of the international distribution game this film has actually only found release in the United States this year (on home video) and is subsequently eligible for the 2014 BAM Awards slate.

From the internalized narration we get the externalization. Leon’s latest suicide attempt is thwarted and sets the story and further events into motion. With all the life-altering moments that will occur throughout the film, and the unusual characters to whom said events occur; it’d be tempting to externalize too much of the narrative and thus have the film wallow in melodrama. What the film wisely does is allows changes in attitudes and perceptions, even the complications of the players’ natures be demonstrated visually. The journey thus has appropriate tones and more accurate humanity.

Whether in the bigger scope of the tale in the travails of Leon (Antoine L’Écuyer), the temporary inseparable companion in Lea (Catherine Faucher) or his older brother Jérôme who feels equally tired of, and responsible for, his brother and struggles with and against writing him off (Gabriel Maillé); the motivations and subtexts remain just that more often than not. Certain things are unspoken entirely and left for the audience to ferret out. In an otherwise straightforward film these enigmas would be bothersome, but in a film that asks for active participation from its viewers from the first frame; it’s welcome.

This all is not to say that story is cryptic or uninviting. To the contrary the events that occur and what the plot is are very easy to figure out and follow, if not necessarily predict. It’s just that the story goes places where a typical American production wouldn’t and isn’t broad or blunt about telling you what to think, what the characters feel and why. It shows you, but in a removed fashion.

A further testament to how well this film works is that the flow remains consistent and pleasurable despite it not having a conventional plot. When a film is outside the norm, even if its good, the pace can feel hinky; here there is a smooth natural progression to proceedings.

Yet even beneath all that superficial idiosyncrasy, the plot does flow neatly into three distinct sections. The events do trigger one another even if in unexpected ways. Its the subtle handling of performance, story and structure that lands this film with an odd sensibility, yet ultimately uplifting end; comfortably and enjoyably for the viewer.

7/10