'A Kid' ('Le Fils de Jean'): Film Review

Courtesy of Sebastien Raymond Finaout Productions
Gabriel Arcand (left) and Pierre Deladonchamps in Philippe Lioret's 'A Kid.'
A layered, beautifully made family drama.

French director Philippe Lioret ('Welcome') casts 'Stranger by the Lake' star Pierre Deladonchamps as the lead of his latest film.

When told at age 33 that the father he never knew has died and he has two adult brothers in Quebec, a Frenchman travels to the "Belle Province" to finally meet his siblings in A Kid (Le Fils de Jean). The latest film from one of contemporary French cinema’s great humanists, Philippe Lioret (Welcome, Don’t Worry, I’m Fine), is a finely chiseled family drama that’s at once new and familiar, immersive and deeply poignant. It also showcases the always subtle and stirring acting of the soulful-looking Pierre Deladonchamps, the sensitive and striking lead of Stranger by the Lake, as well as a strong Quebec cast led by dignified veteran Gabriel Arcand (The Dismantling) and hot up-and-comer Pierre-Yves Cardinal (Tom at the Farm).

A modest art house hit in France, where its late-summer release date didn’t do it any favors, this has now started rolling out internationally, starting in Belgium and the Netherlands in September. It should appeal to older Francophile audiences worldwide.

A divorced Parisian with a young son (Timothy Vom Dorp), a successful genre novel under his belt but not enough financial security to leave his day job as a dog-food salesman, Mathieu (Deladonchamps) is seemingly content with his life. His tranquil existence is turned upside down when he receives word from sexagenarian doctor Pierre (Arcand), a total stranger from faraway Quebec, that Pierre’s best friend and Mathieu’s mystery father, has died and left him a package.

Mathieu, who grew up with a single mother who died several years earlier, is curious enough to take a plane to come to the funeral of this unknown and also pick up the package, though his main objective is to meet the man’s two grown sons and the brothers he never knew he had: Samuel (Cardinal), a former cross champion-turned-motor salesman, and Benjamin (Patrick Hivon), a corporate lawyer who now lives in Toronto.

Pierre, however, is against the idea. He insists that Mathieu can’t tell the two 30-something men that he’s their brother because they have no idea he even exists, and they’ve got enough on their plate with not only the upcoming memorial service but the fact that their father’s body, which disappeared from a small boat on a lake where he went fishing, hasn’t even been found yet and officials have suspended the search.

From this relatively simple setup, Lioret, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nathalie Carter that’s only very loosely based on a novel by Jean-Paul Dubois, spins a story about masculinity, family, paternity and filial devotion that’s admirably intricate without ever growing convoluted. Indeed, this is the kind of feature that has a surface layer consisting of a very accessible story about one man’s coming to term with the foreign family he never knew he had but that has more complex and often interconnected themes coiling in the layers underneath.

For one, Sam and Ben don’t seem to be the dream siblings that Mathieu could’ve hoped for, as it slowly becomes clear over a tense weekend during which they dredge through the shallow end of a lake themselves, hoping to find their father’s remains. The picturesque, tourism-advert-ready Quebec landscape sharply contrasts with what the men are looking for underneath the calm mirrored surface of the water, and this picture serves as a kind of metaphor for where the story itself is headed, with Mathieu contrasting his not easy but also not all that complicated family life back home and the apparently happy family of Pierre — whose wife (Marie-Therese Fortin) and adult daughter (Catherine de Lean) with her own twin daughters (Lilou and Milla Moreau-Champagne) have their own roles to play in this story — with what’s slowly being dredged up in terms of family history by the two brothers, one a macho alcoholic and the other a religious, money-obsessed businessman.

There is one major secret that’s revealed in the film’s third act and that most audiences will have seen coming since subtle clues are planted along the way. But despite this twist of sorts, A Kid isn’t a mystery in the traditional sense of the word, though Mathieu is understandably curious about the father and family he never knew. Instead, Lioret, like in his previous films, is especially interested in closely observing the behavior of individuals and then placing that behavior within a wider familial and social context and, through the natural contrasts that emerge, exploring several related questions. Here his preoccupations include the (possible) roles of fathers and sons, the difference between men and women (especially when raising children) and the importance of where you’re from and who you are or might turn out to be related to for your sense of self.

Such a subtle approach, a kind of narrative pointillism in which many seemingly ordinary scenes of day-to-day events together create something thematically more complex, can only work if the actors deliver layered work and that’s definitely the case here. Deladonchamps, whose naive, pleasure-seeking newcomer revealed hidden and even dangerous depths in Stranger by the Lake, has since impressed as a bad stepfather character in Philippe Claudel’s A Childhood, in which he managed to turn someone reprehensible into a bad guy who was also, to an extent, understandable.

For Lioret, the striking actor plays his most decent guy yet even though Mathieu’s no milquetoast character, getting into a fight in a bar and standing up for what he believes is right even though he has to deal with a constantly evolving sense of what constitutes his family and his identity. Opposite him, veteran Arcand (the younger brother of Oscar-winning director Denys) brings both warmth and a world-weariness to his not very talkative character, who in many ways functions as a kind of father figure or father replacement since the death of Jean — the original title translates as “The Son of Jean,” an almost biblical-sounding moniker ­— is what sets the story in motion.

Shot by cinematographer Philippe Guilbert in luxuriant, velvety hues that only slightly impinge on the film’s otherwise very realistic and down-to-earth tone, this Kid is also something of a looker but in a way that befits its unassuming nature.

Production companies: Fin Aout, Item 7, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Gabriel Arcand, Catherine de Lean, Marie-Therese Fortin, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Patrick Hivon, Lilou Moreau-Champagne, Milla Moreau-Champagne, Hortense Monsaingeon, Romane Portail, Timothy Vom Dorp, Martin Laroche
Director: Philippe Lioret
Screenplay: Philippe Lioret, Nathalie Carter, loosely based on the novel Si ce livre pouvait me rapprocher de toi by Jean-Paul Dubois
Producers: Marielle Duigou, Philippe Lioret
Director of photography: Philippe Guilbert
Production designers: Colombe Raby, Yves Brover
Costume designer: Ginette Magny
Editor: Andrea Sedlackova
Music: Flemming Nordkrog
Casting: Nathalie Boutrie
Sales: Le Pacte

In French and English

No rating, 98 minutes

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