Saturday, September 3, 2011

Broken Family Ties

Justify FullI’m Glad My Mother Is Alive
Directed and written by Claude & Nathan Miller
Based on an original script by Alain Le Henry
With Vincent Rottiers & Sophie Cattani
In French with English subtitles; 90 minutes; released by Strand Releasing

A sobering drama made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s true, I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive features an exceptional cast of unknown faces in its story of Thomas, a young man whose mother gave him and his younger brother Patrick up for adoption years earlier, and how he tracks her down after they have both begun new lives.

The Millers’ movie crosscuts between when little Tommy and infant Patrick are with Julie, a young single mother far more interested in partying than in raising two sons, and several years later, when Thomas and Patrick (now Vincent) are being brought up by their loving foster parents. Despite his settled middle-class life, Tommy can’t stop thinking about the mother who deserted him and his brother (who was too young to remember her), and decides to see what‘s becoming of the woman who was barely older than he is now when she gave birth to him.

Directed and written by veteran Claude Miller and his son Nathan, I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive presents what in lesser hands would be unbearably melodramatic in a coolly dispassionate way. The film is similar to Claude Miller’s earlier The Little Thief, The Accompanist and A Secret, all character-driven studies that inevitably take drastic dramatic turns.

There’s a masterly sense of mood and pacing as Miller pere et fils move back and forth between Thomas’ two separate families, upending our notions about these unsettled and fractious relationships that are constantly shifting. The adroit editing avoids flashiness as it methodically shows how Thomas’s pent-up confusion and anger ultimately spills out of him violently.

When the neglectful Julie leaves young Tommy alone with baby brother Patrick, he reacts entirely reasonably: as a mad older brother who blames the crying baby for keeping him awake, for example, or more tenderly when, in an orphanage after they are taken from Julie, he recognizes Patrick’s cries and walks over to his crib to calm him down with his familiar face.

Julie somewhat pathetically defends herself from charges that she left the two young boys alone by saying, “Tommy’s looked after his little brother so many times that maybe I thought he’s older than he really is.” That statement is at the heart of the film, since Thomas becomes hardened by his experiences with two families. But the Millers, in a series of nicely observed moments, show his awkward dealings with other people. He meets a young woman working at a movie theater and haltingly attempts to take her out in a sweetly understated scene that ends with him being struck by a slow-moving car because of his inattentiveness crossing the street after he says goodbye to her.

Thomas also ends up becoming close to his half-brother Fred when he reintroduces himself to Julie, coming over to visit and being protective of him when Fred’s dad arrives to take him to the movies: he interrogates a man whom he’s never met about whether his intentions with his own son are honorable, acting for all the world like a jealous admirer of Julie’s, a fact which the Millers hint at but wisely refrain from spelling out explicitly.

What distinguishes the film is its switch from the casualness (and even humor) of the everyday to the shock of a brief spasm of violence that changes everyone’s lives forever. Thomas’s trial, which ends the film, is given a heartwrenching context during one final flashback, as Julie poses for a photo with her sons before leaving them at the orphanage. Married to the film’s last image of Thomas looking into the camera, the film profoundly suggests that his confusion and awkwardness will continue into the foreseeable future.

There’s not a weak link in the cast, led by an alternately brooding and charming Vincent Rottiers as Thomas, a sympathetic Sophie Cattani as Julie and the astounding Gabin Lefebvre as young Tommy, whose unaffected, authentic performance compares favorably with other great child actors (all French, coincidentally): Bridget Fossey in Forbidden Games and Victoire Thivisol in Ponette.

The extraordinary sensitivity with which the Millers handle what could have been an exploitative subject underscores the emotional wallop of I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive, which explores forgiveness with grace and a welcome lack of preachiness.

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