Taking a thoroughly familiar scenario and investing it with plentiful life, empathy and clear-eyed wisdom, Belgian filmmaker Guillaume Senez’s debut feature “Keeper” is a modest triumph of understated storytelling. Featuring a marvelously honest lead performance from Kacey Mottet Klein as a 15-year-old whose girlfriend winds up pregnant (and a slier yet no less demanding one from Galatea Bellugi as the girlfriend in question), this is the sort of quiet film that conscientiously pulls its emotional punches before delivering a well-earned haymaker at the end. It’s tough to see the film venturing too far beyond the festival circuit Stateside, but it evinces huge potential for both director and star going forward.
The eternal obstacle to writing convincing teenage characters is precisely what makes them so interesting: Old enough to confront complicated dilemmas and emotions, but not yet old enough to fully articulate or understand them, the open-veined volatility of the teenage psyche is hard to hit without overshooting one way or the other. So it’s to Senez’s substantial credit, along with his co-scripter David Lambert, that he gets so much of this balance right with protagonist Maxime (Klein): a 15-year-old boy who is alternately lustful and loving, industrious and lazy, rebellious and desperate for parental approval — in other words, an actual recognizable adolescent.
Egged on by his father (Sam Louwyck), Maxime is a promising soccer goalkeeper from a comfortable bourgeois background, just starting to attract serious attention from scouts. But his professional trajectory takes a turn when his working-class girlfriend Melanie (Bellugi) discovers that she’s pregnant.
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Like a lot of teenagers, the two play at taking nothing seriously as a defense against the fact that they take everything seriously, and they initially confront their situation by neglecting to confront it at all. Wandering through a carnival shortly after the positive pregnancy test, Melanie tells Maxime that they’ll keep the baby if he manages to win a prize on a claw crane game. As much as they laugh at the whole thing, Senez makes sure to show us the look of sudden concentration that washes over Max as he takes aim at one of the stuffed animals.
It’s impressive how much depth Klein is able to communicate through this relatively even-keeled character. Despite possessing a strong moral compass, he’s not yet figured out how to read other people, particularly women, and he seems just as surprised as anyone by his certainty that he wants to become a father.
Melanie is a tougher nut to crack. Without necessarily being a pushover, she’s used to deferring either to her boyfriend or her mother (Laetitia Dosch) on important choices, and when a family-planning therapist tells her over and over again, “this is your decision to make,” it’s not clear that she understands exactly what this means. As these two key forces in her life collide — Melanie’s mom, a onetime teen mother herself, effectively orders her daughter to have an abortion — she is set adrift.
While her pregnancy progresses, Maxime is called away to France to try out for a major Ligue 1 club, and predictable complications ensue. What’s less predictable, however, is the way the film treats his choices. Rather than lamenting the opportunities teen pregnancy can squander, or, conversely, celebrating Maxime for prioritizing family responsibilities over his athletic dreams, “Keeper” frames this conflict more subtly, as his tough introduction to the often zero-sum nature of adult decision-making.
While Maxime is a fully-fleshed character, Melanie proves far more enigmatic, but this seems to be by design: Like the film itself, Maxime never bothers to really interrogate what is happening in her head, and his failure to do so sets up the film’s turn into high dramatics in its later stages. But Senez — who follows these two with deft, unshowy long takes — affords both characters a great deal of respect, even though he knows how easily their plans might go astray. When asked by his caseworker why he’s so dead-set on keeping the baby, Maxime replies: “Wanting it isn’t sufficient?” Senez admires the purity of Max’s convictions, while at the same time recognizing that they may not be sufficient at all.