Stars: Sylvie Moreau, Macha Grenon

Director: Louise Archambault

Rating: 18A

*** (out of five)


Louise Archambault’s Familia is a drama about a character who does not learn. Her name is Michèle, and she is played by the Quebec film and television actor Sylvie Moreau in a performance that’s either utterly natural, or a masterwork of technique; it’s impossible to tell.

Michèle is somewhere in her late 30s, but dresses as though she’s a decade younger. She has a teenage daughter, Margot (Mylène St-Sauveur), whom she drags through life in her wake. Michèle also has a gambling problem that’s so thoroughly soaked into her being that it’s as essential to her as respiration; if there is a way to play poker, she will find it, and she will finance that game by any means necessary.

After her latest bout of self-destruction, Michèle has packed Margot into the car and driven off to crash with her relatives, eventually landing on the doorstep of Janine (Macha Grenon), a decorator married to Michèle’s absent brother Charles (Vincent Graton). In short order, Michèle and Margot have moved into Janine’s guest room, and Margot is bonding with Janine’s 13-year-old daughter.

But Michèle is still Michèle, and whether intentionally or not, she manages to destroy anything that has the misfortune of passing in front of her. Further turmoil is provided by subplots involving Janine’s friendship with a transplanted Englishwoman (Emily Holmes), and Margot’s rather casual approach to clubbing — a sensibility she’s no doubt picked up from her mother.

Archambault builds her story slowly and carefully, accumulating small details about Michèle's life and family until we truly understand her ... even if we can’t possibly like her.

Archambault does ultimately overreach herself, with a final act that might have made sense on the page but doesn’t work emotionally. And don’t even try to understand the pretentious framing sequence; just try to see past it and marvel at Moreau’s incredible performance.

Familia is a drama one can appreciate, and even admire, even as one’s teeth are grinding in impatience.