The Son (French)

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You must pay attention during the first 30 minutes of “The Son,” even though it seems like there’s nothing to pay attention to. You’ll see a slight, bespectacled woodshop teacher offered a new student, and you’ll see him decline because he has hands full with his current class. You’ll see him change his mind and invite the new student in anyway. You’ll see the man’s ex-wife tell him she is remarrying, and that she is pregnant. All of this will be done with very little dialogue, with much time spent simply watching the man go about his life.

And then the man, whose name is Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), will tell his ex-wife (Isabella Soupart) what he’s known since the first minute of the film, which is that the new student in question is someone from their past. This explains the man’s unusual interest in the boy. And it explains his dilemma over what to do next.

This quiet, thoughtful film from writers/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne takes a situation familiar to movie-watchers, one in which the course of action and eventual outcome seem predetermined, and shows what would happen not in the movies, but in real life. We are so used to contrivances and neatly wrapped (but unrealistic) resolutions in our films that to see one address a topic rationally seems almost revolutionary. The film borders on genius.

The boy is Francis (Morgan Marinne). He is 16 and has spent the last five years in a juvenile correctional facility for a variety of offenses. His demeanor now is sullen and introverted: If prison isn’t what made him socially backward, it certainly didn’t help. He can barely read or write and doesn’t fit in with the other boys in his carpentry class, even though they’re all juvenile offenders, too.

Olivier, a skilled carpenter who can determine a thing’s length to the centimeter just by looking at it, teaches at the youth center, guiding the boys through the process of reform with a fair, steady hand. He is an exact, measured person. He is not given to extreme emotions one way or the other, nor to extreme actions. To introduce potential crisis into a life as stable as his seems patently unfair.

I’m not telling you all that is involved here — what Olivier and his ex-wife’s past connection with the boy is, for example — because I think you’ll enjoy the film more not knowing. Keep your eyes on everything, and you’ll get more out of it. Watch Olivier’s face for his emotions and thoughts. And then once all is revealed, and you begin to contemplate what will happen, continue to observe his behavior and see if you don’t find Olivier Gourmet’s performance one of the most compelling and natural of the year.

B+ (1 hr., 39 min.; French with subtitles; Not Rated, probably PG for two mild profanities.)

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