The title spells out the theme in the crime drama “Family First,” and if that weren’t enough, the title itself is inked out in cursive on one of the main character’s forearms, a reminder to everyone about how the priorities of mob-linked siblings must align. Quebecois director Sophie Dupuis’ debut feature, selected as Canada’s Oscar foreign language submission, tries to make a virtue of simplicity, whittling the trials of a conflicted goon down to an 87-minute pressure cooker, driving its reluctant hero into action. Yet Dupuis isn’t exactly the first to tackle a “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” gangland scenario, and the no-frills storytelling mostly works against her, rendering the film’s Verdun, Montreal, underworld disappointingly nondescript.
In this “Animal Kingdom”-like domestic scenario, the mother (Maude Guérin) is too swamped by alcoholism to run the show, so it’s up to her son JP (Jean-Simon Leduc) to take care of the family. JP wants to be an electrician, and appears to be excelling at night-school trade classes, where other students are shown peeking at his written exams and consulting him on wiring jobs out in the field. Yet those ambitions take a back seat to to his illicit work as a debt collector for his sleazy uncle (Paul Ahmarani), who wants JP to deepen his commitment to the family business. The situation is complicated by JP’s volatile brother Vincent (Théodore Pellerin), whose utter recklessness on and off the job make it less a partnership for JP than a babysitting assignment: He needs to take the lead on beatings and kneecappings just to keep Vincent in line. And it’s just as dangerous when they’re bar-hopping and Vincent goes out looking for trouble.
“Family First” catches JP as he’s losing his taste for the work. He’s so reluctant to play the role of enforcer, in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to believe he ever had the fortitude for it. When he and Vincent strike out to collect from the proprietors of a Chinese restaurant or an indebted single mother, JP mostly seeks to reassure the most terrified and vulnerable family members, and he flatly refuses his uncle’s demand to execute a hit on a powerful rival. But for as much as JP wants to lead a normal life with his girlfriend Mel (Claudel Laberge), he feels responsible for protecting Vincent, who’s too morally crippled to say “no” to a hit and too dimwitted and weak to pull it off. This sets up a difficult decision for JP to abide by his brother’s “family first” tattoos, pursue his own happiness outside the family, or finesse a third option.
Pellerin makes the strongest impression here as an incorrigible dipstick who bounces around every scene like a 10-year-old on a sugar rush, suggesting an immaturity that tiptoes on the border of mental illness. Vincent’s devotion to family extends so far, in fact, that Dupuis has sketched an ill-advised Oedipal angle with his indulgent mother, another in the litany of reasons for JP to stay at home rather than move out with his girlfriend. In the lead role, however, Leduc makes no impression at all, which isn’t a knock on his performance, necessarily, but on the generic conceits that plague most of the movie. JP’s ambition is to lead the most modest life possible, and there’s little embellishment in the writing and performance to make him more colorful than his dreams.
The same problem extends to Dupuis’ undernourished treatment of the Verdun crime scene. There’s little sense of how the family business operates or how powerful JP’s uncle really is, and Dupuis misses the opportunity to evoke this particular corner of Montreal more vividly. “Family First” cleverly plots its way out of a sticky situation, but stories about men trying to leave the mob are too common to justify a retelling with so little personality.