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A dysfunctional family of drifters inflict fifty shades of emotional abuse on each other in Mobile Homes, a low-voltage exercise in gritty realism from writer-director Vladimir de Fontenay. World premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes, this unflinching yet compassionate depiction of marginalized misfits boasts a few pleasingly poetic flourishes, but it suffers from some common first-time director flaws, notably a listless narrative, thinly developed characters and a relentlessly somber mood. Beyond the festival circuit, where masochistic misery-porn is still held in bafflingly high regard, this Canada-France co-production will most likely struggle to find a theatrical home.
Still in his late twenties, de Fontenay was born in France but has lived and studied in the U.S. His scrappy portfolio to date consists of short films, music videos and Memoria, a collaborative 2015 troubled-teen drama based on James Franco’s autobiographical stories, which co-starred Franco himself. Set in the drab suburban edgelands and snowy rural backroads along the Canadian border with upstate New York, Mobile Homes is his first solo feature and expands on a 2013 short of the same name.
Most of the dramatic heavy lifting falls on the slender shoulders of rising British stage and screen star Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later, Need for Speed). She plays Ali, a sullen young mother who is still barely out of childhood herself, yet struggling to raise her own 8-year-old son Bone (Frank Oulton). Poots musters a plausible American accent, though her model-pretty looks and lustrous blonde mane feel slightly at odds with her grungy, downtrodden character.
In theory, Ali and her domineering loose-cannon boyfriend Evan (Callum Turner, another Brit export testing his transatlantic chops) are slowly scraping together enough cash for a home of their own. In reality, their chaotic lifestyle involves perpetually teetering on the brink of poverty as they shuttle between low-rent motels, stealing food from roadside diners, dealing in narcotics and illegal fighting roosters. Winning no prizes for motherly devotion, Ali routinely neglects Bone’s welfare in favor of Evan’s dubious petty-criminal schemes. But her loyalties shift sharply after the boy is almost caught up in a police raid.
Fleeing from Evan’s toxic charms, mother and child stow away in a mobile home that washes up in a rural trailer park managed by the kindly Robert (Callum Keith Rennie), who offers to help his new arrivals on the path to self-improvement with work and shelter. As Robert makes cautious sexual overtures, Ali and Bone begin to feel a growing sense of community. But their fragile security is shattered by Evan’s angry reappearance, which leads to an absurdly ill-conceived robbery that works much better as heavy-handed metaphor than plausible crime plot.
De Fontenay has a modest flair for artfully grimy visuals, intermittently slipping from stereotypically jumpy hand-held docu-realism into dreamy slow motion. A hot tub sex scene, shot partially underwater, has more lyrical beauty than it deserves. But the young director is clearly still grappling with the mechanics of plot, pacing and audience engagement. His characters are monosyllabic and sketchy, their emotional chemistry tepid, their motives poorly defined. Most glaringly, their struggles against adversity rarely feel any more authentic than a shabby-chic fashion-mag photo shoot.
Even when actual lives appear to be at stake, Mobile Homes strains to deliver the dramatic intensity to match Matthew Otto’s sparse, plaintive score. On a career level, this sub-Dardennes underclass drama should serve as a decent calling card for a raw young director with promise. But as a stand-alone work of cinema, it feels like a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.
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