“Love is all you need”, boasts the poster for the Australian release of The Bélier Family, coming over a year after its hugely successful run at the French box office. With its story a dramedy about a deaf family and their single daughter who can hear, the “you” is an arms-wide gesture to a Boxing Day crowd craving a peek behind the curtain of disability that’s both cordial and poignant. Fascination breeds stigma, though, so the film has a large task ahead of itself to earn empathy and not reduce such very real struggles to a coddling lark. Sadly, co-writer and director Eric Lartigau achieves very little of the sort. The main cast are amiable presences, but as the story rattles them through discordant and plainly staged plotlines, it becomes more interested in appeasing an older audience that already treats the condition as a wondrous curiosity, rather than moving them even an inch outside their comfort zone.
The narrative gravitates between the family’s life in the bucolic French countryside and the stock-standard teen troubles at high school faced by daughter Paula (Louane Emera). Her father Rodolphe (François Damiens) decides to challenge their countryside’s mayoral candidacy, taking on a cartoonish villain (Stéphan Wojtowicz), who we are told fleetingly is planning to bulldoze their idyllic countryside. “Who needs another mall?” they cry, like so many Baby Boomers before them. While he, his effervescent wife Gigi (Karin Viard) and his smart yet slovenly son Quentin (Luca Gelberg) get their campaign going, Paula discovers in a choir class taught by the comically abrasive Tomasson (Eric Elmosnino) that she has a talent for singing. Following a musical career under his tutelage will require her to abscond from her translation duties for the family, so in the classic mode of aggravating and cheap drama, she decides to keep it a secret from them as long as she can manage. Spoiler alert: she can’t keep it going forever.
Despite being made to jump through such conventional dramatic hoops, Emera is fine as the heroine. As a semi-finalist on the French The Voice, she certainly has the singing chops required for her strand of the frayed plot, though she melds this remarkably well with the frustrations and insecurities needling her character. Still, she can only do so much with a story – adapted by Lartigau and Thomas Bidegain from a story by Victoria Bedos and Stanislas Carré de Malberg – that is only keen to give her flaws that members of the old guard like Thomasson can heal: recalcitrance, flakiness, even an appreciation for his generation’s music by way of rehearsing a Michel Sardou track (no Sister Act 2 streetwise updates here, no matter what the Ting Tings needle drop in the opening credits would suggest). The adults are there to be validated and Paula is there to be projected onto. “Doubt everything,” her smartass teacher tells her, “but never me.”
Pitching for an older crowd isn’t necessarily a bad thing by itself, but where it becomes egregious is in its slipshod, simpering portrayal of the family. For one thing, Rodolphe’s campaign, which characters actively contemplate being a hotbed of prejudice, is never resolved beyond a disastrous town hall meeting in the second act, and his caricature of an opponent is gone after a few hammy appearances in the first half. This and moments that might tell us more about the family are constantly being brushed aside for other bizarre priorities: the next extended gag, the next swooning number by Emera, the next montage that feels like rolls of coverage being dumped in one go to pad out the film’s runtime. This turns the clan into one-dimensional sources of entertainment and conflict, and Lartigau is depressingly fond of tying these to unfunny and pointless sexual antics, whether it’s Quentin having an allergic reaction to Latex or Gigi holding aloft, no joke, the pant-stains of menstrual blood from Paula’s first period for everyone to see.
All this and more presented with lifeless mundanity, with barely a moment taken for us to breathe and observe the cast’s unusual lives in meaningful detail. The high school scenes are replete with dashed-off tropes intended to spell out Paula’s struggles via easily understood shorthands: a gossipy friend (Roxane Duran) to confide in, a popular girl (Clémence Lassalas) to cop withering comments from, and a cute boy (Ilian Bergala) to fall for. Any exceptions in the rest of the film, such as a silent breakfast scene in the opening or the climactic audition done with simultaneously signed lyrics, wind up proving the rule of this breakneck editing scheme (Jennifer Augé credited) by framing the disability as a quirk to either be trickily ignored in the former or literally performed for our amusement in the latter. For all the scurrying done to put them centre stage, we are left with very little authenticity to latch onto, making the film’s weepy finale feel unearned.
No disability-focussed film like The Bélier Family is required to be contemplative or have teeth, but it should try to expand understanding of the condition and certainly shouldn’t make a mainstream mockery of it, and yet here we are. It doubly disappoints because a later discussion involving Paula’s parents sees them communicate an irrational disappointment at her being born with hearing, wishing she wasn’t a part of the world they occasionally feel snobbishly superior to. There’s a flash of ambivalence here, or perhaps even rage, and the film suffers immensely by glancing away from these moments for a far blander emotional palette.