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The Misfortunates: Laughs don't ease the agony of abuse

Gunther (Kenneth Vanbaeden, left) has to fend off his drunken and abusive father (Koen de Graeve) in The Misfortunates.

3 out of 4 stars


The Misfortunates

  • Directed by Felix Van Groeningen
  • Written by Christophe Dirickx and Felix Van Groeningen
  • Starring Kenneth Vanbaeden
  • Classification: NA

Comedy doesn't get any more tragic than this. Wickedly funny one moment and deeply disturbing the next, The Misfortunates is a coming-of-age tale with a raw difference - so raw that the hilarity melds with the horror until they seem inescapably bound together. In fact, that's precisely the dilemma facing our young protagonist, a mere boy who's very much a prisoner of his absurdly dark environment: How to escape the inescapable? Or, as he puts it with characteristically brutal honesty: "Life went on, of course - that's what made it difficult at times."

For him, life began in a parking lot outside a seedy bar. Gunther was the product of a skirt-up/pants-down quickie in the boozy aftermath of a pub crawl. Thirteen years later, his mother is long gone and, a mullet-haired teen now, he lives with his father and three uncles in his grandmother's house - a ramshackle abode in the poor part of a small Flemish town. Inside, the place is a mess; outside, it's a toilet - literally. And while granny is a put-upon saint, her grown sons are all chronic sinners and terminal losers. They gamble, they steal, mostly they drink, especially Gunther's dad. Already, the child is father to the man, cleaning up his vomit, calming his tremors.

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And this is funny? At times, yes, surprisingly funny, and for three reasons. First, director Felix van Groeningen (working from the autobiographical novel of a Belgian countryman) presents this domestic dysfunction as a series of near-picaresque incidents - like the clan invading a neighbour's living room when their own TV set gets repossessed; or like the bros proudly entering a beer-quaffing contest sponsored by the local publican and attended by cheering townsfolk. Sure, the movie takes a while to warm up (early on, the episodes feel too episodic), but when it does the brothers often seem like loveable hosers, the Flemish answer to our Trailer Park lads.

Second, that loveable quality is definitely felt by the boy. His dinner may be a small order of fries with a lager chaser, but there's fun to be had at the table and he's part of it. Third, and most important, the tale is narrated retrospectively by a much older if not wiser Gunther. So our laughter is permissible because we know he survived. What we don't know is what he survived to become, and the initial signs aren't good - his sordid history seems bent on repeating itself.

Indeed, the laughs stop short whenever that sordidness bursts forth, which it does with frightening speed. When Dad turns on a dime from an amiable lush to a brutal drunk, humiliating and beating his son, the kid shrinks into his shell and the audience is made to share the guilt - after all, weren't we just chuckling at this monster? What's worse, for the victim, the bruises heal yet the shame lingers. At school, Gunther consciously seeks out trouble: He wants the authorities to pay attention, he needs the state to intervene. There's still an intrinsic decency within him that knows it must get out in order to survive. But the clock is ticking.

From Kenneth Vanbaeden as the teenage Gunther to the ensemble team around him, the cast is uniformly effective, all adroit at winning and alienating our sympathy in a single take. Even the voiceover narration, usually a tired device, is lively here, and often remarkably perceptive. Consider, for instance, this lovely observation about train tracks, the kind that misfortunates live on the wrong side of: "No vehicle gives you a more honest impression of a country than a train." It's a short, throwaway line, but dead accurate.

Throughout, the mystery lies in the fate of the adult Gunther, but I wouldn't dare give it away, except to say that opposites continue to attract right into the resolution, where hilarity and horror give way to a more mature mix of tensions. Yes, all at once, the ending is wry and upbeat and sad - but the best endings always are.

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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