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Ever since Taken rocked the box office back in 2008, there have been plenty of high-octane thrillers about fathers saving their children from peril in a subgenre that’s been pejoratively dubbed “daddy porn” by some critics. But what about the mommies?
In the low-key French noir Not on My Watch (Pris de court), Virginie Efira plays one such death-defying mother, stepping in to help her teenage son after he gets ensnared by a malicious Parisian gangster. It’s potentially potent stuff that never quite delivers on the thrills it promises, although writer-director Emmanuelle Cuau (Tres bien, merci) manages to insert a few moments of suspense while coaxing a strong performance out of the always-watchable Efira. Released in France on a limited number of screens, the film will probably fare best on TV and VOD, with potential for an English-language remake by someone who significantly ups the ante.
A one-take opening sequence reveals all the backstory you need: We see jewelry designer Nathalie (Efira) exiting a Paris metro station and talking on the phone with her future employer, only to learn she’s been canned before the job even started. Freshly relocated from Canada with her two sons — 15-year-old Paul (Renan Prevost) and 8-year-old Bastien (Jean-Baptiste Blanc) — she suddenly finds herself “dans la merde” as they like to say in France, with no choice but to accept temporary employment as a waitress while trying to find something better.
The event has a ricochet effect on her family, especially when Paul, who’s been having trouble at school and befriends a low-level drug dealer (Zacharie Chasseriaud) to pass the time, finds out Nathalie never got the job she wanted and has been lying about it at home. He thus decides to start dealing himself in order to bring in some cash, riding around Paris on his roller skates to make deliveries for Fred (Gilbert Melki), a soft-spoken and highly intimidating crime boss who operates out of an old cafe in the 19th arrondissement.
Things of course will unravel from there, especially after Paul is robbed of one of his shipments and has to repay a hefty sum to Fred. Meanwhile, Nathalie finally lands a job at a small if elegant jewelry store, using her design skills to craft a pricey diamond necklace. When she learns what happened to her son, it’s not very hard to figure out where the plot will be headed — though Cuau (who co-wrote the script with Raphaelle Desplechin and Eric Barbier) does toss in a few surprises and monkey-wrenches along the way, if never quite enough to turn Watch into a true nail-biter.
Efira, who made a name for herself hosting the Belgian American Idol, has turned into one of the more promising actresses working in French cinema, shifting from commercial fare (It Girl) to Woody Allen-ish comedies (Caprice, In Bed With Victoria) to a memorable role as a devout Catholic wife in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. Here she does a good job channeling Nathalie’s powerlessness as a single mom with a delinquent son on her hands, and it’s only when she decides to step in and save the day that things seem rather stretched from both a narrative and character standpoint.
Trying at all times to justify Nathalie’s actions but never quite maintaining full credibility, Watch ultimately works better as family drama than thriller, and the last act feels particularly far-fetched compared to what came before. Still, Cuau came up with a good concept, and her film manages to remain reasonably intriguing until the very end, with Efira and promising newcomer Prevost (Alone) anchoring most of the action.
Tech credits are passable and backed by a decent score from Alexandre Lecluyse. The much-better original French title, Pris de court, translates as “caught unawares.”
Production companies: Christmas in July, Ad Vitam
Cast: Virginie Efira, Gilbert Melki, Renan Prevot, Jean-Baptiste Blanc, Marilyne Canto
Director: Emmanuelle Cuau
Screenwriters: Emmanuelle Cuau, Raphaelle Desplechin, Eric Barbier
Producer: Julie Salvador
Director of photography: Sabine Lancelin
Production designer: Veronique Barneoud
Costume designer: Dorothee Lissac
Editor: Anja Ludcke
Music: Alexandre Lecluyse
Casting: Christel Baras, Noemie Vanier
Sales: Alma Films
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