How many times can movies rehash the story of a child determined to pursue his or her passion butting heads with parents who refuse to understand? The beauty of the otherwise formulaic “La Famille Belier” is the way this affable crowdpleaser manages to twist its overplayed setup: Teenage Paula (played by Louane Emera, a semifinalist in France’s “The Voice” competish) discovers that she has a God-given talent for singing, but can’t communicate that desire to her deaf family. The scene in which she succeeds in sharing her gift with them, finally bridging the fact that they can’t hear, ranks as perhaps the most touching moment in French cinema last year. A holiday hit in Gaul, this feel-good family dramedy seems ripe for remake, though it would be tricky to release in its current form since the premise would play best to those with little patience for subtitles.
Still, a remake would be hard-pressed to find an actress as right for the role as Emera, whose convincingly awkward performance earned her a Cesar for most promising actress — and whose climactic cover of Michel Sardou’s “Je vole” (about a child spreading its wings and leaving the nest) leaves hardly a dry eye in the house. A slouch-shouldered, slightly heavy-set blonde whose posture conveys everything one needs to know about her lack of self-confidence, Emera plays Paula Belier, who as the only hearing person in her otherwise deaf clan, plays an essential role in running the family dairy-farming business.
When her father (Francois Damiens, goofy) decides to run for mayor, it falls to Paula to translate his speeches, and when her parents visit the doctor to discuss a rash that’s interfering with their intimate activities, Paula must once again play go-between. Her mother, Gigi (Karin Viard, stuffed into flower-print dresses and playing it slightly over-the-top, a la Jennifer Coolidge), can’t imagine life without Paula, which means any change would pose a challenge to their existing dynamic.
At first, Paula has no idea she can sing, but when cute classmate Gabriel (Ilian Bergala) signs up for choir as an elective, she and her oversexed best friend (Roxane Duran) decide to follow his lead. The choir director (Eric Elmosnino, the “Gainsbourg” star whose cartoonish portrayal here offsets Emera’s naturalism) recognizes Paula’s talent immediately and pairs her with Gabriel, to the teens’ mutual embarrassment. Though no Zac Efron, Gabriel strikes Paula as intimidatingly dreamy, and she suffers the ultimate humiliation, getting her first period during an afterschool practice session.
Where American family comedies tend to shy away from talk of sex and bodily functions (only to have the same subjects dominate R-rated comedies), “La Famille Belier” offers a more Judy Blume-like approach to such aspects: The Beliers are a sexually active clan, from Paula’s frisky parents right down to her younger brother Quentin (Luca Gelberg), whose virgin experience reveals a mortifying latex allergy. And then, with little explanation, the romantic subplot involving Gabriel evaporates mid-movie, leaving director Eric Lartigau to focus on the musical drama. If Paula pursues her dream, it will mean moving to Paris, which gets to the real conflict: Can the close-knit Belier family withstand Paula’s independence?
Again, it’s the deaf twist that sets the film apart, inviting several interesting creative choices along the way. Rather than subtitling the sign language, the film typically relies on Paula to respond or repeat what the other Beliers are saying, putting auds in the reverse position: If they can’t read signs, viewers must struggle to understand what’s being said. Meanwhile, oblivious to sound, her parents make a hilarious racket, banging pots in the kitchen and blasting music when they pick her up at school.
Paula is easily embarrassed, and the boombox in the back of Belier’s bright yellow delivery truck merely draws attention to the fact that they drive what looks like a European postal van. During the big school concert, Lartigau mutes the audio so we can imagine how her parents experience the show, relying upon the expressions on the faces around them to see how Paula’s singing touches the crowd — one of three creative strategies he devises to convey how the Belier family manage to “hear” their daughter at last.