‘Custody’ review: A skillful but stressful French family drama

French writer-director Xavier Legrand shows enormous skill in his first feature film, “Custody,” though one does wonder who in their …

‘Custody’

Directed by Xavier Legrand

Starring Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gioria

Unrated

French writer-director Xavier Legrand shows enormous skill in his first feature film, “Custody,” though one does wonder who in their right mind would voluntarily sit through this thing.

It starts off disquietingly, with a tense (but mostly civil) family court hearing, then only gets worse as a 12-year-old son is ordered to spend time with his short-fuse father. The bad vibes grow unbearable until the film goes in the exact direction the defeated mother knew it would go, if only the bureaucrats would listen. Stressful!

And yet, it’s hard to look away. Legrand’s style refuses to descend into horror movie tropes, maintaining a documentary-style realism. There’s a looming sense of dread as the mother Miriam (Léa Drucker) moves her two children into their new apartment. Aides-de-camp come and go. An aunt, a grandmother, all stifling their sighs, all wearing worry on their face. There’s clearly many gruesome details about Miriam’s separation from Antoine (Denis Ménochet) we’re not hearing about. We don’t really need to.

The performances, especially from Thomas Gioria as young Julien, are extraordinary, but depressing as hell. The 18-year-old sister (Mathilde Auneveux), who has her own set of problems, leads a sequence at a party singing a French-inflected “Proud Mary,” and it’s the sort of “not germane to the plot, but still amazing” type of moment that can make a film memorable.

Scenes at Antoine’s parents house are shot from Julien’s perspective, with turned backs, fights overheard from the kitchen and references to past events he may not even be aware of. But the kid, like any frightened animal, knows self-defense is key to his survival. Did I mention this movie isn’t for the weakhearted?

Legrand seems intent on staying out of the way, letting the audience figure out what the dynamic is during long, sometimes wordless shots. There is an assuredness here that keeps this altogether upsetting movie watchable, but also indicates a stylist with hopefully more stories to tell.

Jordan Hoffman