The main character in “C.R.A.Z.Y.” is a teenager who thinks he might be gay, yet the film doesn’t make that its central point. In fact, it’s almost an afterthought to what is really a charming, richly entertaining story about a family trying to love and understand each other.
Told with visual flair and humor by director Jean-Marc Vallee from a screenplay by himself and Francois Boulay, our story begins with Zachary Beaulieu, a French-Canadian lad who was born on Christmas Day 1960 and has thus always hated the holiday. (People who share their birthdays with Christmas might understand his bitterness.) He’s the youngest of four boys (a fifth is born a few years later), and it’s through his eyes that the film unfolds.
As a child, Zachary (Emile Vallee) idolizes his father, Gervais (Michel Cote), a “cool,” fun dad who makes sure to have plenty of one-on-one time with each of his children, or maybe just with Zac. He wants his son to turn out normal, after all, and the boy’s fondness for pushing baby carriages and wearing Mom’s (Danielle Proulx) jewelry isn’t doing much to allay Dad’s fears.
As a teenager, Zac (now played by Marc-Andre Grondin) and his father are still close, but emerging quirks in Zac’s personality threaten to divide them. Though the family is devotedly Catholic, Zac has come to wonder if he might be a) gay and b) atheist. He prays fervently that a) won’t turn out to be true, and the lack of response leads him toward b). But faith is ingrained in him, and he wavers back and forth on matters of God and religion as much as he does on his sexuality.
(Religion plays a significant role in the film, both literally and symbolically. When Zac is hit by a car, he tells us he was clinically dead for three seconds, which makes his subsequent life a sort of rebirth.)
Zac’s older brother Raymond (Pierre-Luc Brillant), meanwhile, is a source of angst for his parents, having sex and doing drugs with girls in his basement bedroom until finally Zac rats him out — a means of deflecting attention from himself — and Raymond is evicted.
Which problem is more manageable for the Beaulieu parents? Raymond’s addictions and wantonness, or Zac’s possible homosexuality? If this were a coming-of-age (or coming-out) drama, the answer would be a heavy-handed “Zac’s homosexuality,” and the parents would be shown as intolerant rubes.
But “C.R.A.Z.Y.” is not that kind of film. Gervais and Laurianne Beaulieu are fully developed characters in themselves, their love and concern for their children apparent in all their actions. Dad has an obsessive love for Patsy Cline records (including, of course, “Crazy”), and Mom has the rather odd belief that Zac has the power to heal sick people just by thinking about them. (The fact that he might actually have this power is one of the things that keeps him from fully renouncing his faith.) They are not villainous fuddy-duddy parents, but compassionate, honest souls who genuinely want the best for their children. They’re good parents, in other words, and they’re believable.
In fact, “compassionate” is a good word for the film as a whole. Vallee shows affection for all of his characters (though he lets Zac and Raymond’s other three brothers go neglected), and for the looks and sounds of the 1970s, when most of the film is set. He doesn’t mock the era, as many films do, nor does he mock the family’s religious devotion, Zac’s sexual confusion, or Raymond’s self-destruction. But he doesn’t over-dramatize them, either. Instead, he treats the characters and their foibles with grace and humor.
Most noteworthy is Marc-Andre Grondin as the teenage Zac. His earnest struggle between his identity and his faith is seldom explored as tenderly as it is here, and Grondin’s performance is funny and heartbreaking. “I want to be like everyone else,” he pleads with a family friend. “Thank God you never will be,” she wisely replies.
With an infectious ’70s soundtrack and a lot of enthusiasm for telling a rich, poignant story, Vallee has made a wonderful film. It addresses weighty issues without being bogged down by them, and maintains, apart from rough language and a brief sex scene, the sort of behavior that mainstream audiences can embrace. Zac might be gay, but we never see him in a sexual encounter. His sexuality isn’t the point, after all. It’s all about a family’s love for one another.
A- (2 hrs., 10 min.; )