Published Sep 11, 2015Like Leolo, C'est pas moi, je le jure!, Mommy, Lost Song, Polytechnique and dozens of others, Anne Émond's Les êtres chers follows the French-Canadian (and, to a lesser extent, Anglo-Canadian) tradition of portraying mental illness on film. Here, depression and its subtle manifestations — treated here as a hereditary illness, primarily — propel the narrative, giving thematic purpose where there is otherwise middling family drama with a latter coming-of-age epilogue. Unfortunately, its treading of familiar ground merely makes this tepid addition to the canon pale in comparison to many of the superlative works preceding it.
The first problem is structure. When Les êtres chers starts, our pseudo-protagonist David (Maxim Gaudette) is a teenager in the '80s. His father is found dead in the family basement (much like Papa Grape, he hung himself), which David's brother chooses to hide from him and his mother. Years go by, and David has a daughter, Laurence (Karelle Tremblay), with Marie (Valerie Cadieux), a family tenant and friend. Émond progresses through this decade with little vitality or attention to detail outside of tchotchkes and set dressings, like the old-school boxes of Molson Export seen in virtually every scene. David's family appears well adjusted, and he makes the most of the tools his father left him — not his brother — in the will, becoming an ersatz marionette mogul.
There are hints at potential worldview clashes, or at least character identifiers, such as Laurence's youthful discomfort with the death of animals (something juxtaposed with her father's constant hunting trips). But even these are sort of vaguely defined and almost incidental, blending in with the sort of broad tropes and clichéd family moments that usually unfold in films that try to span too many years in too little time.
It feels like once Laurence is a teenager and falls in love with a boy suffering from mental illness, Les êtres chers should hit its stride, but it never really does. There's mention of David being sensitive, and the fight between him and his brother — jealousy, mainly — isn't particularly nuanced. Presumably, this is because Laurence is the emotional focus here. Émond is trying to paint a portrait of a young woman's psychological make-up by providing a backdrop of familial secrets and potential depression (which is likely why she was attracted to an unstable boy).
But even this is surprisingly banal. Laurence has a diary with some broad insights and adolescent, purple prose, suggesting she's artistic, but she's otherwise a pretty blank slate. Save some mild angst — she freaks out at her father when she finds out he read her diary — she's really not given anything of substance to do until David starts to demonstrate the existential woe that comes from having raised one's children and not having any purpose beyond this.
The outcome of these events and the instigator of internal conflict for Laurence, beyond being quite obvious, doesn't come until the final moments of the film, which leaves the true protagonist to rush through the lamest teen exploration possible (she travels the globe to "find herself") before landing on a moderately touching moment.
Sadly, this touching moment is too little too late in a film that's astonishingly cold and dull for most of its runtime. Somewhere in here is an idea about family dynamics and the weight our parents place on our shoulders, but it's buried under countless sequences that have no tension, passion or purpose. Les êtres chers is too milquetoast to be effective or, more importantly, affective.