First, a confession. I watch very few moves and when I do, I frequently feel stupid because I don’t see all the nuances others do. So, don’t see this move on my say so. Truth is that since it was premiered in 2017, the movie won a number of awards in Europe. It was produced in France but was very highly reviewed here in the states was well. Rotten Tomatoes scored it 95%.
The movie is Jusqu’à la garde or simply “Custody”. Yes it is en francais so be prepared for subtitles. Actually, you won’t need to read subtitles to absorb the import of the film. It is told through the face of Thomas Gioria, an actor who plays the role of 11-year-old Julien. The movie opens in the office of the French equivalent of the custody conciliator; a person who decides how physical custody will be allocated. You hear the lawyers for both sides pitch their case as to how Mother and Father should be involved with Julien. You see a skeptical hearing officer who is not afraid to challenge, and, at times, deprecate both clients and counsel. As one who has done this for almost four decades, the scene rings as very real for those who want to see what a custody conciliation is like.
In that first scene, Mother portrays Father as explosively violent. Father seems stoic and yet not. The conciliator takes it all in and announces a decision will be made. The bulk of the film is a montage of scenes where the custody order as issued, and as negotiated by the parties afterwards, is played out in real time. As a lawyer, what makes this film so important is how adult decisions, whether judicial or parental, play out in the facial expressions of Julien. At 11, he is that age where he is growing more and more cagey about managing his parents with each day. Nevertheless, he is still a child and his efforts to change the subject, dissemble or cover for a parent are unmistakable. Meanwhile, his parents, in their unbridled quest to “win,” pay no heed to his suffering. I have never been a parent although I have represented hundreds. You cannot watch this film without observing and recoiling at what Julien’s loving parents are putting him through.
For more than an hour in this 93-minute film, Julien is the pinball. Father’s composure is disintegrating. He has secured time with Julien but has never connected with him. He knows Mother is lying to him about her whereabouts and he does not hesitate to demonstrate to his son that he knows that Julien and his Mother are liars. On this subject, he is right. So he uses Julien to inflict pain on his Mother, and he feels justified in doing so because Julien is conspiring with his Mother. As lawyers, this is a common thing to see. With few exceptions children in the primary custody of one parent will inevitably tilt the scales toward the parent who has them 80% of the time. Kids may be uneducated and naïve. They are not stupid.
The closing scene is as dramatic as it is troubling. I actually don’t commend watching it because, in a sense, it is what you hope won’t happen. To me, the scene in this movie that I found most compelling is one where Father brings Julien home to Mother. It has been another bad weekend and it would appear that Father is gaining insight into the entire situation. He asks to speak with Mother in person. Julien is there watching this with eyes wide open. Father more or less confesses his frailties. He says he has changed. He never wanted to see things devolve to this point. He reaches out to embrace Mother and, for several moments, with Julien looking on, his parents hold each other. As you study Mother’s face, you cannot be clear whether this is an act to placate the man she has grown to revile or real melancholy over loss of what was once romance, and later family life. As they part, the viewer hopes that Julien has a life ahead of him with parents who will at least begin to respect each other. Alas, it is not to be.
In custody world, the recurring theme is one of parents who profess to want to spare their children pain. Their sincerity is, in most cases, quite real. However, they cannot avoid their own urges to be the “equal” parent or the “better” parent. The movie notes how “friends and family” can often contribute to these innocent and yet, corrupt, urges. It is very difficult to see, when it is your child, who is in the middle. The merit of this film is that you can watch the conflict on screen as it appears on the face, in the words and the sad expressions of an eleven year old who wants only to be spared.
This is not a light film. It is not something I commend to watch at a time when there are so many other unpleasant things transpiring in our world. But, if you are parent and you find yourself in intense conflict with the Mother or Father of your child, the greatest gift you may give them is to spend an hour watching and feeling life through the eyes of a child whose greatest aspiration is not to be a Nobel laureate or even starting shortstop. A young child’s goal is to have two parents who love him or her enough, to leave their anger or quest for power at the door, when a custody transition or decision is underway.