There's an Internet meme that's been going around for a couple of weeks. It's shown up on my Facebook feed at least a dozen times so far. It's a photo of a young boy wearing vintage 1970s clothing who's flying off a homemade ramp on a Big Wheel. The photo implies that half a second after it was taken, the kid crashed hard on the ground and probably damaged some part of his body. The caption beneath the photo indicates that the child is wearing no pads, no helmet and has no adult nearby to freak out on his behalf and that that is what made the '70s really cool. Obviously things are different now. The trend in American parenting in 2012 favors a smothering level of over-involvement and over-protection. But if this film from actors/writers/directors Valerie Donzelli and Jeremie Elkaim is any indication, that paradigm hasn't affected France just yet, even when it comes to the ideas about what's appropriate when it's time to care for a very sick child.
Without enough information going in, this movie might be the tough sell of the week: a French drama about a couple facing their toddler's brain tumor diagnosis, one that focuses on the well-being of the couple themselves rather than obliterate them as characters in the face of their son's bleak prognosis, one that surprises with a lot of unexpected humor but isn't exactly the sort of comedy-first film that 50/50 was. Meanwhile, the surprise selling point is that Donzelli and Elkaim didn't just make this stuff up, they lived it themselves and their young son Gabriel, himself a brain tumor survivor, plays their child in the movie's opening and closing sequences. It's fictionalized, of course -- the couple won't tell the press whether or not they're still together or how closely their real lives mirror the film -- but the naturalism and lived-through-it-iveness is front and center in every shot.
It shows in the way that the young parents, here named "Romeo" and "Juliette," ask each other on the night they meet if their relationship will be doomed by fate because of the coincidence of their names, in the way they take time for themselves and live their own lives even as they deal with the years-long ordeal of tending to a child with cancer. And as filmmakers/screenwriters, Donzelli and Elkaim are equally concerned with lightening up the mood -- it's a movie about a kid with brain cancer, it was sort of necessary -- with multiple shout-outs to the stylistic approaches of various French New Wave directors. There are tag-team narrators borrowed from Francois Truffaut, a Jean Luc Godard-like Pepsi Generation love montage where the young and smitten are seen reading books together and even a Jacques Demy/Umbrellas of Cherbourg moment where the couple break into song to comfort one another in their moment of shared worry (and if you've never seen a movie from any of those guys, then consider this your gateway drug).
Seen in contrast to the strenuous gloom and theme of parental martyrdom in a not-all-that-bad movie like the Cameron Diaz-starring My Sister's Keeper, it might seem like this couple is asking to be called neglectful, sort of like the '70s parent holding a martini while their kid builds a dangerous makeshift jump for his Big Wheel. But what they've really done is model another way of getting through and surviving a long, sometimes unwinnable war.