There aren't many ingredients writer-director Louise Archambault leaves out dramedy that certainly doesn't lack ambition, centered on a dysfunctional Quebec family. Pic would play much better as an ironic Altmanesque comedy. Largely entertaining feature debut that deserves fest spots and could work outside francophone Canada.

There aren’t many ingredients writer-director Louise Archambault leaves out of “Familia,” a dramedy that certainly doesn’t lack ambition, centered on a dysfunctional Quebec family. Well-cast ensembler’s main flaw is lack of a consistent tone to bind itsdisparate elements: Pic would play much better as an ironic Altmanesque comedy, since its moments of pure drama are the weakest. Still, this is a largely entertaining feature debut that deserves fest spots and could work on a limited basis outside francophone Canada.

Film’s putative central character — who later blends into the larger ensemble — is Mimi (Sylvie Moreau), a divorced, thirtyish aerobics instructor who’s up to her ears in debt from her deeper passion, gambling. Hightailing it out of Montreal with her restless 14-year-old daughter, Margot (Mylene St-Sauveur), Mimi, totally broke, decides to head for California. Problem is, she’s broke.

Unable to raise any more cash from friends — apart from her mother’s (vet Micheline Lanctot) sleazy b.f., who pays cash for sexual favors — Mimi turns up at the home of her childhood friend, Janine (Macha Grenon), in the comfy suburb of Saint-Hilaire. In a scene which only makes sense much later on, the audience has already been primed that gushy Janine is not quite the perfect mom she seems.

Janine allows Mimi to stay for what she hopes will be only a few days, especially since she considers Margot to be a potential bad influence on her obedient daughter, the younger Gabrielle (Juliette Gosselin). It’s not long before tensions show between control-freak Janine and working-class hustler Mimi, though when Mimi finally offers to leave, Janine offers her a temporary job in her small interior design business.

Given the women’s differences, this plot development is scarcely believable at the time, though it does make sense in light of subsequent events. Beneath her Stepford Wife-like exterior, Janine is achingly lonely: philandering hubby Charles (Vincent Graton) is away on what he claims is business most of the time, and her two kids call her “Hitler” behind her back. Even Mimi’s company is better than nothing.

In fact, Janine is not so different from Mimi after all: She’s coolly planning a piece of revenge that will liberate her. But first she has to deal with a betrayal by the gambling-addled Mimi.

Archambault provides a rich tapestry of subplots and characters behind the two women’s stories: the growing friendship between kids Margot and Gabrielle, with the former introducing the latter to sex and parties; a crisis of Margot’s own; plus a host of other people in Mimi and Janine’s overlapping, extended families.

The best moments are when the comedy of situations is allowed to come to the fore (as in Janine’s revenge plan), which shows the keen sense of humor in Archambault’s slightly over-cooked characters. As Janine takes a more central role, Mimi’s more realistic story is a more awkward fit for the movie, which still tries to balance drama and ironic comedy.

Grenon’s Janine gradually steals the film in a beautifully calibrated perf, matched on the older side by Lanctot as Mimi’s free-thinking mom and on the younger by Gosselin as tweenie Gabrielle. Moreau is fine as far as her role allows, but her character becomes annoyingly unsympathetic as the film progresses. St-Sauveur shows surprisingly mature smarts as her daughter.

Widescreen lensing by Andre Turpin is consistently good-looking, and other technical credits are smooth.

Familia

Canada

Production

A micro_scope production. (International sales: Christal Films Intl., Westmount, Quebec.) Produced by Luc Dery. Directed, written by Louise Archambault.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Andre Turpin; editor, Sophie Leonard; music, Ramachandra Borcar; production designer, Pierre Allard; costume designers, Annie Dufort, Elisabeth Morad; sound (Dolby Digital), Pierre Bertrand, Louis Gignac; sound designer, Sylvain Bellemare; associate producer, Kim McCraw; assistant director, Eric Parenteau; casting, Lucie Robitaille. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 9, 2005. (Also in Toronto Film Festival, Canada First, opener.) Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Sylvie Moreau, Macha Grenon, Juliette Gosselin, Mylene St-Sauveur, Micheline Lanctot, Patricia Nollin, Paul Savoie, Vincent Graton, Emily Holms, Xavier Morin-Lefort, Jacques L'Heureux, Normand Helms, Sonia Vigneault, Alexandre Cote, Claude Despins, Helene Florent. (Quebecois, English dialogue)
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