A potentially fascinating true tale yields only scant emotional returns in “The Good Life,” a decently acted but curiously noncommittal coming-of-age drama from debuting helmer/co-writer Jean Denizot. Based on the story of Xavier Fortin, whose custody battle with the mother of his two young sons led him to kidnap the boys and raise them well into their teenage years, this beautifully lensed picture offers a low-key, present-tense snapshot of this unusual family unit and its gradual dissolution. But while it has no shortage of lovely isolated moments, the film’s understated approach too often hints at a simple lack of clarity or purpose. Some arthouse play is likely, but widespread exposure beyond Francophone territories seems unlikely.
Fortin was arrested in 2009 in France’s Pyrenees region for having disappeared 11 years earlier with his kids rather than turn them over to their mother, who had been granted custody; he was released from prison after two months, largely based on the testimony of his now fully grown sons. Denizot and co-writer Frederique Moreau haven’t ripped their version of events from the headlines so much as reimagined a few key episodes toward the story’s end, focusing on the younger son’s romantic awakening as the catalyst that brings an untenable living situation to a close.
The screenplay drops us directly into the nomadic existence of teenagers Pierre (Jules Pelissier) and Sylvain (Zacharie Chasseriaud), who, it gradually emerges, have spent the past decade or so living with their father, Yves (Nicholas Bouchaud), in various secluded regions throughout rural France. Their relationship with their dad, though clearly full of affection, has become increasingly tense. Pierre, the hotheaded older son, is experiencing the usual teenage desires (sex, a driver’s license), but Yves insists they maintain their modest life of simplicity and discretion, tucked away in away from the eyes of the authorities.
When missing-children fliers surface in their vicinity (clearly not for the first time), Yves once again says it’s time to pack up their motor home and hit the road. But a fed-up Pierre impulsively runs off, leaving his father and brother to head to the Loire Valley, where they set up camp on the riverbank. It’s here that Sylvain meets Gilda (Solene Rigot), a pretty girl his age whom he first sees fishing in the river, and who introduces him to the thrill of first love. She’s also the one who makes Sylvain realize how lonely he is, and also how difficult it is to get close to another person while living a lie.
By avoiding explanatory flashbacks or a decade-long timespan, Denizot has given himself the admirable challenge of telling his story entirely through a present-day prism, requiring the viewer to glean past motivations and experiences via telling details. An early speech by Yves, insisting that he and the boys have everything they need under their roof, hints at the fight-the-system hippie mentality that likely drove Yves to retreat from society in the first place.
Other insights are less subtly handled; on more than one occasion the the boys are seen reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and lest we still fail to grasp the mythic overtones in this tale of three men escaping into nature, the film revels in shots of its characters splashing about naked in the river or under a waterfall (the lush great-outdoors photography by d.p. Elin Kirschfink is gorgeously composed in widescreen). These blissful moments, at once innocent and mildly sensual, would be more effective still without the obtrusive accompaniment of a jaunty country-flavored score, laying on a thick glaze of faux Americana with a trowel.
While Denizot scrupulously refuses to amp up the melodrama, or to suggest that a fictional feature can give us more than a partial view of events, at a certain point “The Good Life” seems to be short-circuiting its emotional potential. The storytelling rhythms are too slack, the coming-of-age tropes too familiar to resonate or convince. The general air of restraint works better in terms of the fine performances; Chasseriaud has a nicely watchful gaze but can’t quite overcome the passive nature of his obedient-son role, while Bouchaud is aces as the gruff, wild-haired father whose authoritarian streak is predicated, ironically, on a belief in a certain kind of freedom.