Grandson of a legendary rugby player, son of a legendary rugby player, and he himself a legendary rugby player, Jo Canavero (Gérard Lanvin) raises his only son, Tom (Jérémie Duvall), in a small village in the Tarn region. To the great displeasure of Jo, thirteen-year-old Tom is as good at math as he is useless on the rugby field. For a Canavero, the legend can't stop there, even if it means setting up a rugby team specifically for Tom, despite the wishes of the whole village and of Tom himself.
FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: First-time director Philippe Guillard’s Jo’s Boy is a sweet and unashamedly sentimental lark of little consequence. The tender but slender sports-fantasy tackles its themes with the subtlety of an All Blacks front-rower in its flavoursome presentation of the semi-rural life in the Rugby-mad Midi-Pyrénées. The film was enough, though, to win over domestic audiences when it premiered in late 2010, no doubt buoyed by the nationalistic sporting fervour that accompanied the build-up to the 2011 World Cup.
Guillard is a former Union man – a speedy outside centre for the 1990 Championship-winning Racing Club de France who was never called-up to the national squad – and he’s clearly channelling some internal angst via his protagonist, Jo Canavero (Gérard Lanvin, nailing 'rugged but damaged’).
Jo is a late-40s widower trying to guide his unmotivated and physically ill-equipped son Tom (Jérémie Duvall) into a life of rucking and scrummaging, to preserve a centuries-old family tradition of sporting prowess. Jo harbours terrible regret that, on the verge of being capped an international, he lost his nerve and was never again offered the opportunity to play at the highest level. Though still revered by the locals, he’s now a village handyman, and determined to have his son play out the dream he could not fulfil. To add to his frustrations, his family home and playing field has been taken over by sexy corporate chief Alice Hamilton (Karina Lombard), an Irish single mother with a tweenage daughter (Grace Hancock) in tow.
Jo rebuilds the local junior team with his comic-relief offsider Pompom (Vincent Moscato), old teammate and ladies-man Tricky (Olivier Marchal) and a blow-in Maori giant (amateur actor Darren Adams, obviously inspired by All Black legend Jonah Lomu). Though Tom is central to Jo’s motivation, the character is pushed to the sidelines (despite the best efforts of Duvall, a solid screen presence) to wait out the bulk of the film until the de rigeur finale. (Arild Andresen’s MIFF 2011 hit The Liverpool Goalie better captured the frustration of a teenager’s lean physicality dictating his sporting accomplishments.)
From the 'let’s start our own team’ moment, every clichéd beat is a resounding hit. All characters have their moment of string-accompanied happiness and not a single happy-ending possibility is overlooked; scenes of slow-motion elation are also never far away. As much as the French industry decries the crassness of Hollywood’s output, Jo’s Boy most resembles the sports-themed oeuvre of David Anspaugh, director of Hoosiers, Rudy and The Game of Their Lives.
Competitive moments are kept largely to the film’s final act and Guillard handles the game play with the eye of someone who understands its flow. Nevertheless, the dynamic pace of team sports has always been tough to capture cinematically without a big-budget and the production team has openly admitted the film survived on meagre funding. (The beautiful work of cinematographer Ludovic Colbeau-Justin helps give the film a high-end sheen).
Ultimately, the film’s charms survive in spite of Guillard’s treacly touch and no-surprise storytelling, but his approach dilutes any serious consideration for his worthy themes of tradition, family honour, loss and redemption.