Louis Belanger’s “Route 132,” the tale of a father devastated by his 5-year-old son’s death, never hits a wrong note, thanks to standout perfs and a script that patiently builds characters of such dimensionality that each surprise twist lends increased psychological rightness. Adroitly intermixing a classic genre, the buddy road movie, with the arthouse motif of adults’ shattered reactions to their children’s deaths (a theme examined by fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter”), the Montreal fest opener drives its universal themes through a closely observed, very specific Quebec. Breakout pic, also in the Toronto fest, should easily cross borders.
Montrealer Gilles (Francois Papineau), unable to cope with his young son’s sudden demise from meningitis, runs away from the doctor, the funeral, his university teaching job and the whole city, thanks to a chance meeting with disreputable old pal Bob (co-scripter Alexis Martin), with whom he drunkenly schemes to knock over banks in the boondocks. But the urbanites prove more gullible than the hicks (all the banks have folded anyhow), and Gilles proves more self-destructive than Bob could have imagined.
Gilles’ short-lived crime wave seems intended as a form of suicide, his itinerary reading like a desperate return to the past by a man who sees no future. He keeps journeying back to his roots, making the rounds of his relatives, ostensibly to cadge food and lodging. In some respects, “Route 132” feels like a French Canadian “Five Easy Pieces,” blending comic road-movie encounters with emotionally resonant prodigal son reunions.
Gilles’ desperate need to come to terms with personal tragedy colors his exchanges with family members, many of whom, it turns out, have experienced similar grief — a beloved aunt (Andree Lachapelle) buried two young offspring, while an Army cousin (Gary Boudreault) was traumatized by the murder of kids in Kosovo. One of the pic’s most striking images frames Gilles among the forest of crosses that make up a half-submerged graveyard in the sea, a monument built by vets to commemorate the innocents slaughtered in Bosnia.
As the pic progresses, the two buddies gradually switch roles. Respectable, bourgeois family-man Gilles throws civility to the wind, spiraling in increasingly asocial, even violent ways, while the formerly devil-may-care Bob assumes responsibility not just for Gilles but for Gilles’ loved ones as well. The skirt-chasing bachelor even falls for a woman (Sophie Bourgeois) with a daughter (Alice Morel-Michaud), the femmes irresistibly drawn to his playful spontaneity and indomitable sense of humor.
Much of pic’s considerable charm results from its canny contrast between city and country, between Bob’s footloose opportunism (he tries to sell a knockoff watch to everyone he meets) and the deep-rooted, unabashed emotional directness of Gilles’ rediscovered family. This latter quality, the ability of family to effortlessly transcend class and generational differences, is a constant in Quebecois filmmaking, frequently explored in pics from Jean-Pierre Lefebvre’s underrated 1982 “Wild Flowers” to Denys Arcand’s 2003 “The Barbarian Invasions.”
Belanger previously fronted the Montreal event with 2003’s “Gaz Bar Blues,” but “Route 132” demonstrates newfound tonal scope. Dynamic exchanges between Papineau and Martin launch sufficient thesping fireworks to diffuse any sticky sentimentality. Supporting players seem so convincingly indigenous it’s hard to believe they’re pros. And ace tech credits include lenser Pierre Mignot bestowing verdant landscapes with a rustic matter-of-factness.