In Southern France, Baptiste (Pierre Rochefort), a teacher, watches over one of students after his mother leaves him stranded at school one afternoon. When Baptiste meets the boy’s beautiful but unsteady mother (Louise Bourgoin), the trio soon becomes closer than he could’ve imagined…

French misfit romance pays off.

FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: Going Away is, in part, about returning home and finding that there’s not much there but bad blood and old wounds. The characters here see no point fighting that kind of spiritual dry rot. The only thing to do is to leave and start again.

At least that’s what seems to motivate the plot of this intense and rather charming new low-key contemporary melodrama from Nicole Garcia, who was so great as the potentially femme fatale in the fondly remembered Death in a French Garden (1985). Pushing 70, her work load these days is favouring directing over acting, though she’s been helming pictures since 1986 when she made her debut with 15 août.

Garcia’s new film – shot with a hand-held immediacy that makes it feel lived not staged – isn’t propelled by one crisis after another but shaped by the inner turmoil of her main characters, a pair of drifters who are chasing a life of security and love, that I’m guessing, they’ve never really known. The major plot device – a bad debt – provides a jolt of danger and a clear line of action. But the familiar possibilities of this kind of yarn don’t arise. There’s no pursuit, no climatic blood bath, no desperate criminal measures to make good. Indeed, what is here seems to parody the conventions. Still, the stakes are high for these people; poverty is a close neighbour and psychosis lives next door.

The original script by Garcia and Jacques Fieschi is a chamber piece that demands a lot of the actors; the style is an emotional short hand of glances, tell-all body language only occasionally punctuated with the kind of dialogue that when heard at 3am is like dead-on-target sniper fire for the soul: “I love you ‘cos you are sad.”

At first, I thought Going Away might be a riff on Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (1974), an adult and child buddy movie. Baptiste (Pierre Rochefort) is a substitute teacher working in the South of France. When one of the kids from grade school, Mathias (Mathias Brezot), is momentarily ‘orphaned’ after his parents forget to pick him up, Baptiste volunteers to step in. Turns out the kid’s parents are separated: dad is a well-off swinger with a pretty young girlfriend who has not signed on for step-motherhood, and mum isn’t around or available. Seeing the look of clingy hope in Mathias’ eyes, Baptiste takes the kid on. They hang out and Mathias discovers that this good-looking teacher is not much fun; he’s moody and a little distant. Mathias pretty much traps Baptiste into meeting his mother Sandra (Louise Bourgoin). She’s a waiter at a beachfront restaurant, the kind of place where the work force consists of folks on the way to somewhere else, probably another overpriced joint with white tablecloths where the view is better than the food.

In one of the film’s many moments of naked vulnerability, Sandra confides to Baptiste that at one time she had a dream out of this kind of life, her own fast food joint, but it ended up a bust. Now she’s living in a hole of debt, burdened by motherhood and harassed by tough-guys who want their cash back yesterday.

Baptiste seems a mix of the overconfident, the intelligent, the gloomy and the violent. A boozy night out ends with him in reach of being on the receiving end of a beating after he starts a fight. Sandra has to step in to rescue him; this is a movie that believes in Good Samaritans and the healing power of kindness.

By this point, the story has shifted into a hard-luck romantic adventure of dysfunction. As Baptiste and Sandra grow absorbed in each other, Mathias’ lonely kid takes on the role of onlooker. He’s not quite an after thought, but definitely sidelined by both the movie’s action and the adults’ immediate emotional needs.

After Sandra cops a black eye from debt collectors, Baptiste offers a solution. He’ll get the money Sandra needs from his family. Trouble is, Baptiste is the black sheep, and to go back home for him means a confrontation. Once on the family’s grand country estate – with its servants, garden banquet, and tennis court – Sandra understands that she’s the outsider by virtue of her class and Baptiste has been slumming it. Like Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces (1971), he’s some kind of runaway and what he is prepared to put himself through – a special kind of embarrassment and agony – in order to help Sandra out, touches her immeasurably.

Garcia conjures fine performances from the entire ensemble and the three leads are superb. I especially liked Dominique Sanda as Baptiste’s mother. There’s a wonderful moment where cinematographer Pierre Milon’s camera captures Sanda running to hide in the house the moment she first catches sight of her prodigal son. Just for a flicker of time, Sanda produces a whole history of disappointed expectations in a face bent out of shape with a mix of fear and longing.

But then the film is full of such moments; Bourgoin, lost in a gloom of bad choices, hiding unnoticed in the swirl of the restaurant kitchen or Rochefort’s frigid home coming. When he shakes the hand of a tall blond patrician type in a way that shrieks private terror, we know this must be the brother he wished he’d never had.

I once heard a filmmaker say that there are only two kinds of movie stories. There’s the one about going home. There’s the other one about leaving. Going Away, whose French title, Un beau dimanche translates to A Beautiful Sunday, combines the pain and the joy of both.

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1 hour 31 min