Every year journalists cry foul at the Cannes Film Festival, demanding an expiation why their nation’s cinema is underrepresented (or plain absent) from the various selections: China, India, Spain, et cetera. Of course, Canadians are too polite to interject in a press conference, but the only nominally Canuck film to be found on the Croisette this year, “Mobile Homes,” was in the Directors’ Fortnight program. Paris-born, U.S. trained Vladimir de Fontenay takes the helm of the feature, an update of his 2013 short film. As is the case with a lot of Canadian movies, this international co-production plays best as a calling card, featuring actors both imported (Imogen Poots, Callum Turner) and homegrown (CanCon staple Callum Keith Rennie). The result is a mixed bag that demands too much dramatically, even if it speaks to de Fontenay’s innate talent.
“Mobile Homes” places you directly in the throes of poverty experienced by Ali (Poots) and her 8-year-old son Bone (Frank Oulton) along the U.S./Canadian border. The opening sequence doesn’t pull any punches: bracing handheld camerawork documents Ali’s visit to a Social Services clinic, where she has a meeting to temporarily relinquish custody of Bone in order to get back on her feet.
On paper, this already sounds like a Dardennes Brothers movie, all gritty social realism — except the hard decision has already been made. When the state won’t take her child, the film’s focus shifts to the relationship between Ali and her boyfriend Evan (Turner, under-appreciated star of Netflix acquisition “Tramps”) and their efforts to subsist: dining and dashing, sleeping in abandoned trailer homes and selling fighting cocks. When Evan employs Bone to sell drugs at a cockfighting match, he goes a bridge too far. The mother-son duo seeks refuge and a new life with Robert (Rennie), the manager of a trailer park. Of course, trouble and more difficult choices are never very far behind.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the thrall that Evan holds over Ali outside of exposition that suggests he has been a part of Bone’s life since infancy (therefore a steady father, if not necessarily a good one). The pair doesn’t necessarily have chemistry, but de Fontenay weaves in an excess of sex scenes to convey a primal lust between the two, and in a healthy variety of locales. The most compelling is a scene of intercourse in a pool at nighttime, the vivid red motel lighting standing in for the intensity of the couples’ passion.
However, the lack of a solid foundation for the couple’s amour fou relationship places a heavy strain on some sharp narrative turns later in the film, particularly those after Ali and Bone have had a taste of stability and happiness. The performances are sturdy across the board, the subtlest being child actor Oulton as a kind of “wild child” adjusted to the hardscrabble life. Bone is never far from the ugliest scenarios, in one case receiving a nasty cut on his face from a bladed bird. Oulton’s small steps to expressiveness in the second half of “Mobile Homes” are organic and touching, especially compared to Poots’ more clichéd transformation in the company of landlord Robert. The actress runs the gauntlet of emotions without stopping to catch a breath, but it’s a performance we’ve seen before, the same of which can be said for Turner’s charismatic scumbag.
At the very least, Canadian films are consistently worthy of praise for their technical qualities, such as André Turpin’s peerless lensing of the films of Xavier Dolan or the singular sound design and proto-cinema special effects in the films of Guy Maddin. And while the cinematography by French DP Benoit Soler in “Mobile Homes” is impressive, it’s a stunt set piece late in the film that really shines. The scale and seamlessness of the sequence is completely unexpected for a film of this type and yet is wholly appropriate for the runaway train impetus of the narrative at this point. If anything, this burst of spectacle is a distraction from the melodrama of Ali’s decision-making.
Coming from the perspective of a Canadian critic there are a few ticks that come across as financing concessions, such as the necessity of greenbacks and U.S. license plates when the story could just have easily been told on the other side of the border — especially considering that the (not super weird) sex and snowshoes narrative of “Mobile Homes” is otherwise very characteristic of filmmaking north of the 49th Parallel. Inevitably, this is the vibe that de Fontenay’s debut gives off: trading on a handful of arthouse qualities to gain some traction in the American market. It’s a very watchable — if occasionally frustrating— first effort, but one hopes that the director will carve out more original territory with his second film, regardless of where he settles. [C+]