starring: Patrick Huard, Julie LeBreton, Antoine Bertrand
screenplay: Ken Scott and Martin Petit
directed by: Ken Scott
MPAA: Rated R for sexual content, language, and some drug material
Language: French, with English subtitles
Starbuck, a French-language Canadian import from 2011 that opens in Bay Area theaters today, has won and been nominated for a slew of awards in Canada and at various international film festivals, and deservedly so. Although it is only late March, I am going out on a limb to predict that come December 31st, this film will probably still be on my list of the year’s top ten films. It is the sort of warm, charming, character-driven film that the Canadians and French seem to be able to make in their sleep, but yet constantly elude the American film industry, with its penchant for box office action and recycled romantic comedies.
Instead, Starbuck shares an earnest sensibility with films like Amelie, The Closet, and My Afternoons with Margueritte, as it tells the story of fortyish David Wozniak (a terrific Patrick Huard), the son of Polish immigrants who works as the delivery driver for his father’s Montreal butcher shop alongside his two more settled brothers. David is presented as the family slacker, unreliable, and always in debt — sometimes dangerously so, and sometimes to the extent that he considers schemes of borderline legality, such as growing pot in his apartment. Along these lines, the film opens by flashing back to 1988, when we see David, even then looking to make a quick buck, donating sperm at a clinic conveniently located in his neighborhood. Its location is perhaps too convenient, however, as we learn that over the course of two years, David, under the pseudonym “Starbuck,” makes 693 donations, resulting in 533 children, 142 of whom, he learns as we return to the present day, have filed a class action suit against him to compel him to reveal his identity.
A further complication — as if one is even needed — is that David’s long suffering girlfriend, Valerie (Julie LeBreton, appropriately exasperated), tells him she is pregnant, awakening in David a sense of responsibility and a determination to get his life on track to be a proper father to his new unborn child.
As part of his quest to prove himself capable of fatherhood, David, who has received detailed profiles of all 142 class action members from his lawyer friend (a delightful Antoine Bertrand) begins to find — or rather, stalk — some of his many biological offspring.
To say any more than that would be to give away the pleasures of watching this somewhat far-fetched, but completely captivating, story unfold. If you are willing to suspend disbelief on a few plot elements, you will be rewarded as you would with reading a great novel: this film captures the viewer with absolute force and doesn’t let go for 109 minutes. At the film’s end, you will be sad to leave the characters (now your friends!), Montreal, and the theater itself to enter back into your own less complicated, but, no doubt, much more staid life.
The breezy, funny screenplay by director Ken Scott and Martin Petit and the earthy, natural performances of all the major characters (Igor Ovadis as David’s father is particularly moving) make this film a true joy to watch, even as it skillfully delves into larger issues about paternity, parenthood, family, and community. If after exiting this film you don’t have the urge to rush home and hug your parents, siblings, and/or kids, you may need to see a therapist about your troubling lack of emotion.
An American version of this film is already in the works, which is a real shame; Vince Vaughn is set to star as Starbuck, which is an even bigger shame. Unlike a remake such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which actually benefited from American prowess with action and thriller motifs, Starbuck will not fare well with Vince Vaughn’s sophomoric humor and mocking irony. Do yourself a favor and see this original, beautiful version instead. There is enough cynicism in this country already; there is nothing wrong with enjoying some heartfelt sincerity once in a while, especially when it is presented so masterfully.
Starbuck opens in Bay Area theaters today.