Veteran actress-turned-writer-director Nicole Garcia’s “Going Away” is a fine little drama in the best French tradition of intimate yet ambivalent character observation, in which unexpectedly crossed paths turn out to be a catalyst for mutual change. Not starry, flashy or easily encapsulated enough to be assured offshore arthouse exposure, it could nonetheless stir distrib interest as positive fest and critical notices accumulate.
Baptiste (Pierre Rochefort) is a grade-school substitute teacher who’s very good at his job, though he invariably turns down offers of permanent employment; something in him shrinks from forming longer-term attachments. Still, he offers to take in student Mathias (Mathias Brezot) one weekend, when it turns out that neither of the boy’s separated parents has made provisions for him.
The next morning he takes the kid to the beach, Mathias insisting that they travel far down the shoreline — an excuse, it turns out, to surprise his mother at the oceanside cafe where she works. Despite a heavy work schedule, Sandra (Louise Bourgoin) tries to make time for them, even taking Baptiste clubbing after Mathias has fallen asleep. Her party-hearty insistence that he drink alcohol, however, triggers a stuporous, brawling reaction that hints at mental issues behind his reluctance to plant deeper roots.
It emerges that Sandra, too, has kicked around a lot. While she’s trying to live a more settled life for Mathias’ sake, her customary instinct is to run from trouble. And trouble looms in the form of a couple of toughs she borrowed large sums from for a failed business venture; they’ve tracked her down and want their money now.
Without a word, Baptiste decides to make this debt his responsibility. The three are soon driving to visit the family Baptiste has been long estranged from, and an unannounced reunion at their gated country estate reveals much about his troubled past.
Garcia, co-scenarist Jacques Fieschi and the excellent cast (including a welcome Dominique Sanda as Baptiste’s regal mother) bring a sense of depth and shared history to even those figures we meet just briefly. Though the dialogue rarely spells out backstories, we grasp their emotional gist nonetheless. While the fadeout is a tad pat, the filmmakers have by that point earned some hope of contentment for these hitherto mostly unhappy yet engaging and likable dramatic personae.
The loose, unpredictable narrative vibe is abetted by Pierre Milon’s fly-on-the-wall cinematography. Design contributions likewise hit an effectively naturalistic, low-key note, and the entire tech package is unobtrusively pro. The more flavorful, slightly ironic French title translates as “A Beautiful Sunday.”