If you're still swallowing bile in response to Sarah Palin's claim that small towns hold all the virtues in the universe while cities (where most people live) only harbor soul-corrupting influences and shallow, pretentious elitists, then France's low-key export, The Grocer's Son, might not be for you.
A box-office sensation in France, Eric Guirado's modest and patient portrait of a sullen and selfish young city slicker who learns to care for others after heading to the countryside follows a fairly predictable route but benefits from small grace notes and an understated charm. Still, given The Grocer's Son's incredible success, one has to wonder how deep Parisian disconnection runs.
After his father (Daniel Duval) suffers a heart attack, ne'er-do-well son Antoine (Nicolas Cazalé) is emotionally blackmailed by his mother to leave his cramped city apartment and head to rural Provence to drive the family grocery van, delivering goods to — surprise, surprise — a rogues' gallery of eccentrics and wise but weird old fogies. Along for the trip home is his next-door neighbor Claire (Clotilde Hesme), who hopes that time away from the city will give her the mental space she needs to study for her university entrance exams. Antoine, of course, harbors a secret crush.
As you might expect, the doddering regulars on his father's route irritate Antoine to no end. Each has an odd way of doing business and Antoine's given ample opportunity to show all different colors of asshole. When Claire starts accompanying him on the road, her free-spirited grace erodes Antoine's sharp edges and he learns the profound virtues of simple living. Before long, the van has been repainted in joyful colors and rechristened "The Flying Grocery." Lessons are learned, love blossoms and you get that sinking feeling you've seen this movie before. Maybe it was called Doc Hollywood.
Guirado's movie follows a tried-and-true storyline — uptight city dweller heads to the country, smells the roses and learns that simple folk know something urban neurotics have forgotten — that simultaneously charms and offends, the balance determined by how well the tale is told. In the end, however, there's no getting around the fact Guirado is exploiting the same sentiments Palin wielded like a cultural cudgel during the presidential campaign.
Developed from the filmmaker's documentary series about mobile food vendors, The Grocer's Son benefits from an authentic sense of place, populating its story with local non-actors. These camera-friendly personalities bring a richness that goes beyond cliché and even hints at something a little darker and more human. Too bad then that Guirado and his co-writer Florence Vignon aren't able to connect the dots, only hinting at Antoine's growing insight about family and community but never actually revealing them to the audience. The movie misses so many opportunities to deepen its characters that you often feel like scenes were dropped on the editing room floor. For example, an interesting parallel between the father's curmudgeonly nature and Antoine's own sourness is left unexplored. Similarly, Claire and Antoine's spontaneous inspiration to repaint the van results in a precise example of professional pop art design. Despite its pastoral allure, engaging interactions and visual lyricism, The Grocer's Son can't seem to stop itself from trading in sentimental shorthand. Or maybe only critics in the "Real America" can truly appreciate Guirado's down home message.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 28-29, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 30.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].