A French couple who agree to raise their children in nature, free from laws and the effects of mass culture, find that things get awfully complicated when the mother decides to go back to organized society in Cedric Kahn’s “Wild Life.” Caught in the middle are the family’s three sons, who must decide which side to take. Early on, the two youngest opt to go off the grid with their dad, and the film follows their 10-year disappearance, resulting in a raw and occasionally bumpy meller that shares more in common with bandits-on-the-lam movies like “Badlands” than that custody-battle classic “Kramer vs. Kramer” — a readily accessible hook in France, where it opens Oct. 29, as well as for both festivals and distribs abroad.
Freely adapted from the true story of Xavier Fortin, as described in books written by both him and his ex-wife, Catherine Martin, “Wild Life” attempts to depict the parents’ “war” — a drawn-out, guerrilla-style Vietnam fought mostly in the bush — from the kids’ perspective. In doing so, it asks how the children of flower children cope when it comes time to choose their own way of life, paying particular attention to how these two boys felt at the beginning and end of the decade they spent living illegally with their father. During that time, he evolved from superhero to flawed human in their eyes, as all parents inevitably do.
In France, those who’d heard the story mostly got the mother’s side, since the media seized on her distress while the boys were missing. By focusing on the father, renamed Paco Fournier (and played with total conviction by a ponytailed Mathieu Kassovitz), Kahn seeks to put the kidnapping in context. Straight off, Kahn immerses us in the mother’s frantic efforts to gather her kids and separate from her husband — scenes that recall last year’s suspenseful Oscar-nominated French short, “Just Before Losing Everything.” Here, played with painful conviction by Celine Sallette, looking desperate and filthy in her unkempt dreadlocks, Nora gathers her three long-haired sons and flees to her parents’ house.
When it comes to matters of parenting, most decisions are far too complex and personal to be easily judged by outsiders, and Kahn and co-writer Nathalie Najem are wise to neither support nor condemn the family’s bohemian lifestyle outright. Together, Paco and Nora decided to reject the potentially toxic values of France’s corporate-run, consumer-based society, preferring to create a smaller, almost cult-like unit of their own in which to raise their kids. In time, Nora decided the only way to escape the squalor of the family’s semi-nomadic existence and to provide her boys the education and opportunity they deserve was to force them to reintegrate.
It’s a disruptive and dramatic beginning, thrusting auds directly into the domestic conflict, without giving them a chance to experience what the family’s life was like before Nora left. Though the circumstances are hardly typical, it’s a situation that any child of divorce can relate to: There is often resentment toward the party who initiates a split, and it’s not at all uncommon for young boys to prefer the idea of living with their father. In this case, Nora already had one son, Thomas, when she met Paco, but the other two — Orkyesa (Sofiane Neveu) and Tsali (David Gastou), who are 7 and 8, respectively — cling to their father and the life they’ve known.
But life can never be the same for them. Before, the family was free to move about, setting up their trailer where they pleased and living like hippies off the land. Once Paco violates the pro-mother custody arrangement and decides to keep the boys himself, the trio effectively become fugitives. At first, the kids are too young to understand the implications of such a childhood, going along with the routine of hiding from police officers and search parties like it’s some kind of game. But in time, this ongoing deception takes its toll, forcing them to invent new identities and backstories at every stop, lest Paco be arrested and they returned to Nora.
Raised in a rural communal living environment himself, Kahn draws from that experience in capturing the idyllic side of the back-to-nature movement: campfire singing, making goat cheese and catching trout by hand, all captured via Yves Cape’s lush, refreshingly instinctive handheld lensing. The pic shows Kassovitz striving to be a responsible father, as the actor sinks his teeth into his first meaty role in ages (directed by someone other than himself, at least), supplementing regular home-schooling lessons with his own personal values — what some might consider brainwashing — in which he demonstrates how nature differs from “square” society, or chides his kids for shaving and otherwise buying into the brand-dominated culture he left behind.
Had Kahn taken the mother’s side, he easily could have constructed a more traditional — and potentially more engaging — genre movie, one in which the authorities are constantly on the trail of long-haired, freaky person Paco, with his nonconformist attitudes and intense Charles Manson stare. Instead, he takes the nobler, and ultimately more challenging route, delving into what life must have been like for the runaway trio. Although the disciplined script is clearly structured into organized scenes, observing that the renegade family can only sustain us for about an hour before we start to get restless, at which point the narrative jumps forward a decade to find Orkyesa (Jules Ritmanic) and Tsali (Romain Depret) trying to reconcile their understandable teenage rebellion with the mounting suspicion that they might have been too naive to make the right decision as kids.
For those looking to understand what actually happened in Fortin’s case, “Wild Life” leaves out many key details: There’s not only the rather major question of how the authorities eventually find Paco, but also other poorly explained details along the way, such as what exactly surrogate-mother figure Celine (Jenna Thiam) knows of their situation. Things pick up again toward the end as the volatile teens start to have adjustment problems, clashing with their father and the punk commune where they’re living, while navigating the hurdles of young love and other rites of passage. The two boys may not miss their mother, but we do: Sallette is a terrific actress, and we see too little of her here, until she resurfaces at last during the pic’s hurried emotional ending.