Tales of depressing lives in depressed small towns is something Canadian fiction (both literary and cinematic) has often done particularly well, and Pascale Ferland’s debut narrative feature, “Riptide,” is a solid addition to that narrative subgenre. Three generations of women here mourn the loss of a son, husband and father in a Quebec hamlet that’s seen better days, and where the best option for a viable future is to leave. Terse, illusion-free yet grudgingly affectionate, like its main characters, this likably low-key slice of life has minor commercial prospects but merits consideration by fest and quality tube programmers.
When we meet the Belanger family in Gaspe, Quebec, they’re facing a separation of unknown length: With no jobs in a region once buoyed by the timber and paper-mill industries, Edouard (Bobby Beshro) must head to the city in hopes of a living wage. He leaves behind his widowed mother-in-law, Dorine (Muriel Dutil), who deals with his departure in typically stoic fashion; his very upset teenage daughter, Chloe (Clemence Dufresne-Deslieres); and his wife, Gemma (Nico Lagarde), with whom an awkward parting suggests marital issues left unresolved. Edouard is barely gone, however, when news arrives that he’s died in an apparent construction site accident, having fallen off high scaffolding.
This means Gemma must immediately begin work at the local crab-processing plant, where co-workers unaware of her preoccupying grief and financial worry view her simply as an inept liability. Family friend Philippe (Martin Dubreuil), with whom she’s had an apparently long-standing affair, sees no reason why they can’t now be more open about their relationship. But out of guilt, Gemma instead announces they should no longer see each other at all. Meanwhile, she’s dealing with major strife from surly, rebellious Chloe, who already viewed Mom as an adversary (her dad and grandmother were her allies). She now acts out by skipping school and hanging out with a brash, handsome summer visitor (Pierre-Luc Lafontaine). He might be her ticket out of there, or he could just be leading her on.
Not a lot “happens” — little ever does in sleepy Gaspe, whose downwardly mobile monotony is evoked in the film’s deliberately drab interiors and nondescript vistas. Ferland has a knack for the telling detail: family dinners spent with all eyes glued to some TV gameshow, worn-out furniture that there will probably never be enough money to replace, and teenagers spending free time simply walking around (with or without alcohol) because there’s absolutely nothing else to do.
Yet the writer-director views her figures as stubborn survivors rather than doomed victims of circumstance. Neither sentimental nor condescending, “Riptide” has an integrity that comes from intimate knowledge of the dignity inherent in the kinds of limited-prospect lives where pursuing one’s dreams is pretty much a fool’s pastime. The unshowy performances feel authentic, and the minimal use of Eric Morin and Luc Bouchard’s original score, favoring instead pre-existing rock and country tracks, adds to the lived-in atmosphere.