Director of Canada's Oscar Submission, 'Family First,' Explains One of the Film's Central Metaphors

Sophie Dupuis' Chien de Garde - Publicity - H 2018
Babas Levrai

The French-language crime drama portrays a conflicted debt collector, his self-destructive brother and an alcoholic mother living in a cagelike apartment.

Though she directed Family First, a savagely violent crime drama tapped as Canada's contender in the Oscars' best foreign-language film category, Sophie Dupuis insists she doesn't have a cruel bone in her body.

While themes of physical brutality and emotional torment may fill her scripts, "In my real life, I'm so soft and I fear violence. I don't want to have it around me at all. But in my writing, it's there," Dupuis told The Hollywood Reporter.

Family First portrays JP, a petty Montreal hood played by Jean-Simon Leduc, who is caught between wanting to go straight as an electrician as he completes night-school courses and feeling compelled to follow a criminal path out of allegiance to his drug-dealing uncle, for whom he works as a debt collector.

Despite being a career criminal, JP finds redemption through his dysfunctional family — including an alcoholic mother and  self-destructive brother — even as their emotional bonds are heartbreakingly ripped apart. "It's the weight of the responsibility that JP has on his shoulders, taking care of his mother, his brother and doing more to take care of others than himself, that I wanted to show, that he loves his family and he's not just with them because he has to be," the director explained.

Ironically, the twisted loyalty in Family First that plays out in barroom brawls and bedroom quarrels reflects love between the movie's siblings. Dupuis has never known that love, having in real life grown up as an only child in Quebec. "I feel that I'm kind of alone in this world. This fraternal love, which is so beautiful, is something I really just get to experience through my movies," she said.

Though she wanted to see love win out in Family First, Dupuis set her family drama in the world of petty crime to raise the dramatic stakes. That's especially so for JP, as he feels increasingly conflicted while accompanying his brother, played by Theodore Pellerin, to beat up and kneecap store owners and drug addicts that fall behind in their payments.

"I wanted to push my characters, and especially JP, to answer the question of how he will have to live his life if he is to know happiness," Dupuis explained. The eldest son's devotion to his claustrophobically close-knit family is tested when he takes steps to stop working for his uncle and to, along with his girlfriend, move out of the family apartment. 

The act of disloyalty sends JP's volatile brother into a blind rage, his depressive mother back to the bottle and his uncle to ultimately exact revenge. The French-language drama, which also stars Maude Guerin, Paul Ahmarani and Claudel Laberge, was initially released in Quebec as Chien de Garde.

That title translates as Watchdog, which for legal reasons wasn't available to the film's producer for an English-language release. For Dupuis, the metaphor of a watchdog best illustrates the protection and guidance JP offers his family.

"JP is the watchdog. He's taking care of the family. He's fighting when someone touches a family member. He's always watching for danger around the corner. For me, Watchdog is the perfect title," she said.

Asked about Family First possibly earning an official Oscar nomination, and a ticket to the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles on Feb. 24 for the first-time feature director, Dupuis admits to being a touch overwhelmed by the attention surrounding her drama.

But, as she completes work on a script for her second feature, a mining drama to be set in a small town much like the one she knew growing up in northern Quebec, Dupuis anticipates a long career in filmmaking. "I'm taking it day by day. If we have to go to Hollywood, we will do it. But I don't think that will be my last visit to Los Angeles," she said.

Distributed by Axia Films and produced by Bravo Charlie, Family First was funded by Telefilm Canada and other local backers.