The Grocer’s Son is one of those quirky endearing French coming of age movies which could easily become over-sentimental and schmaltzy. Luckily, it doesn’t.
The coming of age itself is not your typical teenage-kid-becoming-an-adult story, as the ‘kid’ is Antoine, a young man in his late 20s, who has yet to reconcile with his family over a fall-out some 10 years earlier.
He lives a humdrum life in a large French city, no job or career prospects, grim social life, but the attraction of the possibilities of the bright lights of the metropolis still has appeal. He is lothe to admit that it hasn’t quite worked out, and it never might. He goes back to the family business to take his father’s place while the latter recovers from a heart attack, and here the movie could easily become a walking cliché. True, the stereotypes are all there: quirky neighbours, family relationships on/off the mend, an introverted character who finds himself by embracing his roots, a would-be love affair, but none of them descends into bland sentimentality. Even the rolling French countryside is presented without bordering into ‘landscape pornography’.
Indeed, the French countryside is not filled with quirky and sexy city expats, and it feels all the more realistic for it: it is populated with old people, all the young having moved away. This touches a nerve and is certainly the reality in rural communities in today’s Mediterranean countries.
Nicolas Cazalé’s portrayal of Antoine is painted with subtle nuances as he moves from the self-centredness which envelops him at the beginning of the film to a space where he allows people in and is more willing to interact with them.
The protagonist’s own self-discovery is gentle and slow, but inevitable, and it comes as the city edge slowly comes off him and he embraces a different and slower pace of life. It is true that country life is perhaps idealised, and in this case it needs to be, as it represents a change of gear and indeed lifestyle, but it teaches the main character to accept the diversity rather than live in constant conflict with it, a lesson we could all perhaps do with.
With an award-winning performance at the Berlin Film Festival, newcomer Nicolas Cazalé’s future in arty French films seems guaranteed, his acting skills strengthened by brooding good looks. He is a relative newcomer to an international audience, but is fairly well known in France as a movie and TV actor.
Director Guirado’s hand is never overbearing, his touch is gentle but firm, his characters are eloquent but often silent, as it is fitting a movie set in a quiet region of France where anything faster or louder would be strongly cacophonous. This is a movie which will probably do better on its DVD release, but as a warm-hearted feel-good feature it’s hard to beat.