French film “La famille Bélier”, also known as “The Bélier Family”, is a mild crowd-pleaser which will give you as much as you can guess from its synopsis. Here, we have a young adolescent girl who happens to discover her hidden talent, and then we see how her growing aspiration comes to conflict with her parents, who cannot appreciate their daughter’s talent well due to an understandable reason. This is predictable to say the least, but the movie is not entirely without appeal, though it was not enough to prevent me from noticing its thin plot and other weak points during my viewing.
For Paula Bélier (Louane Emera) and her family, life has been good at their dairy farm in a rural town of Normandy, France. While her parents Gigi (Karin Viard) and Rodolphe (François Damiens) and her younger brother Quentin (Luca Gelberg) are congenitally deaf, she is the only family member born without hearing impairment, so it is her main duty to function as a communication line between her family and others. She can deftly go back and forth between speaking language and sign language, but that is not so easy sometimes. In one amusing scene at a local clinic, she has to handle some embarrassing details of her parents’ vigorous sex life, which is as noisy as their domestic life where sound is absent to everyone except Paula.
Meanwhile, the fall semester begins at Paula’s high school, and she and her best friend Mathilde (Roxane Duran) decide to take a choir class just because they are interested in Gabriel (Ilian Bergala), a good-looking boy who has recently moved to their town from Paris. The choir class is taught by Fabien Thomasson (Eric Elmosnino), and he is your average idiosyncratic music teacher whose eccentricity will surely be remembered by his students even after he is gone. Right from the first day of his class, he passionately emphasizes to his students how great Michel Sardou is, and it will not take a second for you to predict that at least one of Sardou’s works will be sung for dramatic effect later.
When Thomasson tests each student’s singing ability, Paula is surprised to realize that she is a good singer with potentials, and her teacher is willing to coach her for further developing her talent. She is paired with Gabriel for preparing for their duet performance in the upcoming class concert, and it does not take much time for them to sense something clicking between themselves during their singing practice, though their first chance to get a little closer to each other is ruined by the early biological signal of womanhood from her body.
As she gains more confidence on her talent day by day, Paula keeps hiding her singing lesson from her family, but she must make a choice as approaching to what may be a crucial point in her life. If she successfully passes the audition at a prestigious music school in Paris as her teacher hopes, she will then have to leave her hometown, and that will be a major change to not only her but also her loving family, who cannot possibly imagine the life without her.
In the meantime, Rodolphe begins his impulsive campaign for the mayor election in their town just because he does not like what the incumbent mayor is going to do in a nearby area. It seems nothing can stop this jolly guy who can be as stubborn as Chevy Chase in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, but, not so surprisingly, it turns out that he needs more than a sign language translator for his campaign – especially when he must convince his town people to vote for him instead of the mayor.
While Paula tries to decide on what is the best for herself, there eventually comes a big conventional moment involved with her class concert, and, of course, her parents come to see how talented their daughter is. In the middle of that moment, the movie dials down its soundtrack to emphasize the viewpoint of Paula’s family, and there is also a nice scene in which Rodolphe senses his dear daughter’s singing in a more direct way reminiscent of “Children of a Lesser God” (1986).
The screenplay by Victoria Bedos and Stanislas Carré de Malberg, later adapted by Thomas Bidegain and the director Eric Lartigau for the movie, is as sincere as these good moments, but it is also pretty heavy-handed and half-baked at times. The characters surrounding its heroine are more or less than caricatures, and most of them are not developed well enough to engage us. In case of Gabriel, he is merely an obligatory love interest in the story, and the relationship between him and Paula is one of the least convincing things in the movie. When she becomes a laughingstock at her high school probably because of him, she is naturally mad about him, but then they seem to forget all about it after he is conveniently absent for a while.
The more distracting element in the film is the broad depiction of its deaf characters. François Damiens and Karin Viard, who are not deaf in contrast to their young co-performer Luca Gelberg, play their characters with good humor and warm cheerfulness, but the movie mostly uses Rodolphe and Gigi as comic stereotypes while never fully developing them as real characters. I am also disappointed that the movie does not push enough its subplot associated with Rodolphe’s goofy mayor election campaign, which could be a rich ground for comedy considering the apparent obstacles Rodolphe and his family are bound to deal with.
While I hesitate to recommend “La famille Bélier”, I should point out that the lead actress Roxane Duran, who made a debut with this film, deserves all the attentions she received through her breakthrough performance (she won the Most Promising Actress Award at the César Awards ceremony early in this year). As a former candidate singer in the local reality TV show “The Voice”, Duran certainly sings well, and she is also very natural in her amiable performance. If the movie were as good as her, it could be something to remember along with other notable family drama movies involved with hearing impairment.