“Custody” is a searing domestic drama and the first feature from French director Xavier Legrand. The 39-year-old started as a child stage actor but is most known for his 29-minute short from 2013 “Just Before Losing Everything”. It was his first effort behind the camera, catching a lot of eyes and even earning Legrand an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.
Interestingly, with “Custody” Legrand takes on the same subject as his award-winning short, even using the same characters and key performers. His feature-length look at a fractured family is more observant and slightly ambiguous. It allows us more time in the heads of his characters to plow their mindsets and decide for ourselves whose side we’re on. You could say we the audience are positioned to be the judge.
Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet) are in a contentious custody dispute with their 12-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria) caught in the middle. They have a daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) but she is a few days away from being of age to decide things for herself.
The film opens with a mesmerizing closed-door court hearing where the judge sits across from the parents and their lawyers who each make their case for and against custody. Through affidavits the children declare their desire to be with their mother. Miriam’s lawyer poses allegations of violence and abuse. But the claims clash with Antoine’s desire to be involved in his son’s life and the glowing character references from friends and co-workers. It prompts the judge to ask them both “Which of you is the biggest liar?”
Nothing Lagrand does is without thought and purpose, from the quiet intense closeups to the absence of a score. His film is all about the characters and placing them in the most authentic, real-life situations possible. We the audience simply sit back and take it all in, watching as this layered drama unfolds into a tense and unsettling thriller.
Even the casting feels intentional – the brawny and physically imposing Ménochet; the petite and tightly wound Drucker. These deftly handled characters slowly and meticulously give us all the information we need before the lid bursts off in a final 15 minutes filled with simmering white-knuckled tension. This is where Legrand’s well-calculated restraint pays off the most.
Lagrand comes at everything from a deeply human perspective and tells his story with a hushed realism. It’s the exact opposite of how Hollywood tends to approach these subjects today. Think Dardenne Brothers but with a slightly sharper edge. And it helps to have such top-notch performances from Ménochet, Drucker, and especially young Gioria whose worried eyes and soulful gaze shatters your heart. Actually, the entire movie does.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS