The kids may not be alright but the young performers certainly are in Belgian genre-specialist Fabrice du Welz’s sixth feature, Adoration. Bringing together two of the most promising current junior Francophone actors — Custody‘s Thomas Gioria and Happy End‘s Fantine Harduin — for a kind of YA Badlands set mainly in the Ardennes countryside, it’s a stylistically impressive picaresque which moves along at an engaging clip until prematurely running out of steam.
Granted a high-profile launch on the Piazza Grande at the Locarno International Film Festival, the France-Belgium co-production should pay its limited way in its two domestic markets on release early next year in tandem with a respectable amount of further festival exposure.
Having impressed in his Cesar-nominated big-screen debut in a largely reactive role as the traumatized kid torn between violently feuding parents in Xavier Legrand’s Venice-prized Custody, Gioria — actually 16 this year, but playing and looking somewhat younger here — now moves confidently center-stage. He plays Paul, who lives with his psychologist mother (Anael Snoek) in a wing of the mental hospital where she works. Imaginative Paul is officially barred from any contact with the young patients, and deals with his loneliness by wandering in the lush countryside surrounding his residence.
Early stretches see him rescue a painfully trapped bird whom he nurtures back to health; his mother’s callous attitude when this feathered friend suddenly expires (it’s hinted that she may possibly be culpable for the bird’s demise) puts a sudden barrier between them. By this point Paul has a new distraction in the form of freshly arrived inmate Gloria (Harduin), whose free-spirited ways and pretty appearance prove rapidly captivating. Despite communication being strictly forbidden, a close and even passionate friendship develops between the two.
A sudden, violent incident at the 25-minute mark sees them flee into the wilderness, where Paul gradually grasps the extent of Gloria’s mental disturbance. Cut off from her meds, the lass veers increasingly towards the erratic and eccentric. The pair have by this juncture passed a point of no return, however, and as they wander the barely populated rural landscape, it’s clear they have entered a semi-fairy tale world of their own.
This environment is immersively captured by cinematographer Manuel Dacosse, who makes the most of being able to work with celluloid film in the widescreen format: His images are rich and full, with the sensory pleasures of the film boosted by Fred Meert’s amped-up sound design and a moody, largely electronic score by Vincent Cahay.
Completing a very loose “Ardennes trilogy” which began with 2004’s Calvaire (aka The Ordeal) and continued with 2014’s Alleluia, du Welz — whose Indochina-set Vinyan (2008) also plunged the viewer into bosky, intense settings — once again scores heavily in terms of evoking atmosphere. And, crucially, he works very well with his two leads: Harduin, only 13 at the time of filming but appearing older, achieves convincingly scary levels of volatile energy when required.
Adoration functions best as a kind of unorthodox, edgy, two-handed coming-of-ager, following its protagonists along the often disorienting paths of budding sexuality: puppy love meets amour fou. The final sections, however — when Gloria and Paul find refuge with a hospitable barge-dwelling couple, and then later encounter an oddball middle-aged loner (Benoit Poelvoorde) — are more fizzle than culmination.
Du Welz’s tendency to fumble matters in the home stretch is far from new; similar issues afflicted Calvaire (also co-written with Romain Protat), and it’s disappointing to find such bathetic tendencies recurring a full decade and a half down the line.
Production companies: The Jokers Films, Panique!
Cast: Thomas Gioria, Fantine Harduin, Benoit Poelvoorde, Anael Snoek, Gwendolyn Gourvenec
Director: Fabrice du Welz
Screenwriters: Fabrice du Welz, Romain Protat, Vincent Tavier
Producers: Violaine Barbaroux, Manuel Chiche, Vincent Tavier
Cinematographer: Manuel Dacosse
Production designer: Manu de Meulemeester
Costume designers: Christophe Pidre, Florence Scholtes
Editor: Anne-Laure Guegan
Composer: Vincent Cahay
Casting director: Michael Bier
Venue: Locarno International Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Sales: Memento, Paris
In Flemish, French