Life has plenty of hard knocks for the boy protag of Philippe Claudel’s “A Childhood,” a sunnily lensed yet bleak drama of a working-class kid whose useless mother, fresh out of the slammer, is generally too doped up to protect her kids from her abusive b.f. This is no Richard Linklater take on growing up: Instead, novelist-helmer Claudel (“I’ve Loved You So Long”) offers zero surprises after establishing the initial setup of lonely child and irresponsible white-trash adults in eastern France. Local play received little traction this past autumn, though the Chicago Film Festival awarded the pic its top prize.
Location is a key player here, and shooting took place in Dombasle-sur-Meurthe, a small industrial town near Nancy that’s also Claudel’s home. It’s here, on the wrong side of the tracks, that Jimmy (Alexi Mathieu) lives with younger half-brother Kevin (Jules Gauzelin); their mother, Pris (Angelica Sarre), and Mom’s good-for-nothing bf Duke (Pierre Deladonchamps, in a role galaxies away from “Stranger by the Lake”). Shacking up with Mom is a fairly new experience for the boys, who until recently lived with their grandma (Catherine Matisse) while Pris did time.
Home life is not homey: The house is a revolving door of stoned layabouts, all oblivious to the inappropriateness of their behavior in front of the kids. Pris is a spectacularly unfit mother, barely functional half the time and in thrall to foul-mouthed Duke, whose violent behavior has the kids constantly on edge. At 12, Jimmy is the sole responsible member of the family, ensuring Kevin is washed, dressed and fed before they head off to school, where, unsurprisingly, Jimmy has difficulty concentrating. His well-meaning teacher (Patrick d’Assumcao) is ineffectual, and later a social worker (Caroline Raybaudi) will also be ineffectual — a glimmer of hope at the very end offers the possibility that Jimmy might not completely fall through the net, but the adults in “Childhood” are largely a sorry lot.
Summer approaches, along with increased isolation for Jimmy. Pretty classmate Lison (Lola Dubois) is his one happy distraction, yet when he attends her birthday party in her picture-perfect upscale house and garden, the disparity between their lives becomes too stark for him to entertain fantasies any longer.
It’s all very sad and, while not maudlin, very predictable. Duke is a one-dimensional monster who turns ever more loathsome in a manner that just draws attention to the commonplace scripting, and Pris’ complete inability to get her act together wallows in wearisome pathos, designed to ensure Jimmy won’t get any breaks. For every good scene, such as Pris and Duke acting like sullen teens at a parent-teacher meeting, there are several poorly conceived ones, though perhaps none as bad as when mediocre CGI is used to show bees attacking a butterfly.
First-timer Mathieu certainly has the acting chops to carry the film: Ironically his role is considerably more nuanced than those of the professional thesps, and both he and Gauzelin received awards in Chicago. Visuals are of the straightforward handheld variety, emphasizing the aura of authenticity, especially in the juxtaposition inherent in the town’s urban-rural divide. Music is taken entirely from tracks by indie U.S. singer Ray LaMontagne.