French Canadian director Christophe Blanc brings a challenging subject to the screen with his English titled French film, Just Kids. In Grenoble, the three children in the Certy family have been orphaned. First of all their mother died after an illness then their father committed suicide by crashing a car. At this point, the two eldest children, Jack (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Lisa (Anamaria Vartolomei) are older teenagers but Mathis (Andrea Maggiulli) is only 10. Lisa has already left home after the death of her mother so Jack is left in charge of his younger brother. This is decided in one of the film’s opening scenes when they and their extended family go before a judge who tells them the law will have its eye on them to make sure they conform to its requirements.
Parenthood is a tough enough job when it’s chosen, but to have its responsibilities foisted on a young man who barely knows who he is, takes it to another level. Blanc’s film shows the domestic chaos that follows when two young people have had the rug pulled from them and are left to fend for themselves. They may not be in financial poverty, but lack the influence of what Mathis astutely refers to as ‘vrai adultes’ (real adults).
Kacey Mottet Klein, who has the look of a young Robert Carlyle, does a superb job of capturing the confused character of Jack as he tries to come to terms with his new life. Like his father, who is described by Great Uncle Abel (Pierre Vial) as ‘gentil et violent’, his behaviour switches mercurially. While secrets of their parents’ lives start to surface, he lives a wild and unregulated life under a mask of easy lies told to his extended family. His anarchic lifestyle involves chaotic house parties and dangerous bike rides but he still manages to remind the mature beyond his years Mathis, captured impressively by Andrea Maggiulli, to wash his hands, wipe his mouth and clean his teeth.
The nightmare scene where Jack sees the bloodied figure of his Dad and the frankly bizarre scenes involving Iberian ham feel contrived and don’t help a film that already has a jagged feel with scenes jumping to new developments that feels like having to play catch up. They may be there for symbolic effect, as may the presence of Mathis’ pet iguana, but add very little. Clearer symbolism is when Jack takes to wearing his Dad’s snakeskin jacket, a less benign reptile than an iguana.
Mathis’ obsession with his Dad’s camera helps to give the film a kind of hope for these kids forced to grow up way before their time.