The Misfortunates -- Film Review

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CANNES -- Four grown men living at home with their mother makes for rich writing fodder. In this rousing Belgian comedy, filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen charts the chaotic growth of a 13-year-old boy who escapes the family chaos and transcends it with a determined writing career.

Bawdy and poignant, "The Misfortunates" will render fortunate any festival director who programs it. Careening through the crazed late '80s world of the Strobbe clan, filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen has poignantly distilled Dimitri Verhust's prize-winning novel about a self-destructive Belgian family.

Cross-cutting between the present and the past, namely from the grown writer's professional evolution back to his days of survival with his alcoholic dad and loutish uncles, Van Groeningen's film is both ribald and tender.

"No one lays a finger on a Strobbe," is the brothers' battle cry, and they are a pugnacious and combustible lot: Petrol (Wouter Hendrickx), Koen (Bert Haelvoet), Pieter (Johan Heldenbergh) and, most prominently, Marcel (Koen De Graeve), the alcoholic father of teenaged Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden).

They've all landed back at their aged mother's spare hearth due to their particular problems: blackout drinking, compulsive gambling, non-stop whoring and chronic fighting. Not exactly solid-citizen types and certainly no role-models for Gunther.

While "The Misfortunates" careens with madcap hilarity through the Strobbe's tumultuous lives, it also resonates with its serious story undercurrent. In essence, it is the story of a boy's struggle to survive, and, in this case, evolve. Will he bumble along in the family's screw-up tradition, or, will he transcend his environment and find an inner identity that he can nourish into an honorable manhood? Fortunately, the serious theme never interferes with the madcap hilarity.

Among the Strobbe menfolk, Koen De Graeve is particularly stirring as the boy's bombastic, alcoholic father. Kenneth Vanbaeden as the troubled teen is a blend of moxy and decency, while Valentijin Dhaenens as the man he has grown into exudes the strength and frailties of a person who has undergone such turbulence.

Under filmmaker Van Groeningen's adroit hand, the technical contributions are a riotous triump. In particular, composer Jef Neve's rousing orchestrations, highlighted by some loopy trombone whoozes, captures the lunacy of the Strobbe's life. In like excellence, production designer Kurt Rigolle's sets reflect the demented mindsets of the Strobbe menfolk, while costume designer Ann Lauweys's duds evoke their loutishness.

Festival de Cannes -- Directors' Fornight

Sales: MK2
Production companies: Menuet & IDTV Film
Cast: Kenneth Vanbaeden, Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh, Bert Halvoet, Gilda De Bal. Valentin Dhaenens
Director: Felix van Groeningen
Screenwriters: Christophe Dirickx, Felix van Groeningen, from a novel by Dimitri Verhulst
Producer: Dirk Impens
Director of photography: Ruben Impens.
Production designer: Kurt Rigolle
Music: Jef Neve
Costume designer: Ann Lauwerys
Editor: Nico Leunen
No rating, 104 minutes
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