Actor-turned-writer-director Robin Aubert’s third feature, “Crying Out,” manages a neat trick in playing grotesque and black-comedy elements as wry realism — funny but also poignantly affectionate toward its hapless lead characters. A road-trip odyssey for three generations of a cranky Quebec clan — the kind whose hard-drinking menfolk invariably screw everything up, leaving long-suffering women to pick up the pieces — the pic may not translate beyond the fest circuit into offshore commercial placements, but certainly advances Aubert (“Saint Martyrs of the Damned”) as one of the province’s most promising newer filmmakers.
When his second wife dies, Jo (Michel Barrette) goes on a bender, abandons their two young children, digs up her corpse and takes off on a cross-country jaunt of unknown destination or purpose. These actions aren’t so much sick as pathetic — he is simply unable to let her go, on the most literal levels.
Gathering up the kids to their collective bosom, the women of the family — long accustomed to calling emergency summits to salvage whatever latest fiasco their men have wrought — determine who’ll go after the addled widower. For lack of better choices, they draft Jo’s son, Hugo (Patrick Hivon), and elderly father, Conrad (Jean Lapointe), who can barely tolerate each other, let alone the missing man in the middle.
Hugo is a handsome young factory worker who copes with a childhood trauma by drinking himself stupid and having indiscriminate one-night stands every night; he’s been pretty much incommunicado with his father since Jo left Hugo’s mother for the younger, now-deceased Spouse No. 2. Conrad is a mean old cuss exiled to a nursing home; while his senile fellow residents sing along to “Life Is Beautiful,” Conrad seemingly can’t open his mouth without some poisonous barb falling out.
Having gotten the cemetery’s presiding cleric to hush up about the grave-robbing for a bit, this less-than-dynamic duo sets out to pick up Jo’s trail, on which he keeps his late spouse preserved as well as possible in car trunks or motel baths full of vending-machine ice.
Precisely crafted, “Crying Out” makes good use of the big, plain landscapes and dank interiors (strip clubs, bars, motels, motel bars) that constitute these ornery working-class Quebecers’ milieu. A civilizing influence intermittently descends as the half-dozen or so “aunties” swoop in like a flock of clucking birds, commenting on the latest mess from their elevated domestic perch. On occasion, spirits of the dead — still clad in funeral garb — materialize around the protags, mute and unseen.
While the pic’s mixture of dry comic miserabilism, some harsh content and dysfunctional-family healing (which manages to avoid rote sentimental beats) will strike some as strained, Aubert largely pulls off this oddball cocktail. Perfs are expert (though Hivon somewhat oversells the watery puppy eyes to remind us that Hugo is a damaged soul), and packaging is well turned all around. Steve Asselin’s widescreen lensing lends the pic an expansive feel that leavens its oft-dreary settings with the odd splash of vivid color.