French father-son directing duo Nathan and Claude Miller have assembled a tense family drama that provides a fresh take on familiar circumstances: An adopted son in search of his true lineage. It’s unclear at what point Thomas (played as an adolescent by Maime Renard, followed by Vincent Rottiers as a young adult) reaches the titular conclusion, but the emotional journey to that abstract destination constantly registers on his face.
The words “I’m Glad My Mother’s Alive” are never spoken until a crucial moment late in the game, but it’s an open-ended statement throughout. As a middle schooler, Thomas isn’t entirely happy with his well-meaning foster parents. Abandoned by his mother (Sophie Cattani) at the age of five, the 12-year-old Thomas grapples with early memories of a woman he never got to know.
Both sweetly innocent and tragically disconnected, Thomas comes across like Antoine Doinel with rage issues. The frustration alienates him from the world, deepening the character’s immediate need to heal his psychological scars. But the animosity Thomas harbors toward his foster parents is matched only by the disdain he has for his birth mother and when he manages to track her down, he can barely look her in the eye.
There’s more to the situation than surface events imply. With the passing glances shared by Thomas and his disaffected mother, the directors hint at an eerie oedipal yearning, then abandon the implication for much of the running time. By establishing Thomas’ fragmented youth through flashbacks, the screenplay drops a tantalizing puzzle piece that remains largely beneath the surface — until a single revealing moment brings it back.
The first half of “I’m Glad My Mother’s Alive” effectively inhabits a child’s mind in a manner that recalls Maurice Pialat’s marvelous 1968 debut “The Naked Childhood.” THe second half jump forward by eight years and into darker territory. Now a disillusioned car mechanic, Thomas must cope with a senile father and an increasingly estranged relationship with his foster mother (Christine Citti). In a moment of sudden inspiration, he reconnects with his birth mom and forms an uneasy relationship. Finding her still single but raising a child she decided to keep, he makes hesitant steps toward accepting her, but not in the role that she abandoned years earlier. “It feels wrong,” he says, underscoring a developing sense of dread. His uncertainty has a logical flow: Always at war with his surroundings, Thomas never has a proper outlet to vent. The anger begins to bubble and eventually bursts.
Despite these internal developments, “I’m Glad My Mother’s Alive” is largely a conventional drama legitimized by its lead performance. Rottiers, a relative newcomer, maintains a stern, assaultive glare that externalizes his ongoing angst. The Millers frame the action with a cold sense of remove that keeps Thomas’ fury at bay until he undergoes a startling transformation.
Opening credits announce that “I’m Glad My Mother’s Alive” is “based on a true story,” an initially useless piece of information. However, it not only makes sense in the concluding act but it takes on a specificity that validates the exposition’s slow crawl. The screenplay’s retroactive suspense invites comparison to the work of Claude Chabrol, although Thomas has a more contemporary parallel with the frustrated young man played by Xavier Dolan in the Canadian drama “I Killed My Mother.” Both movies use their titles as statements to relate serious mamma drama, but only “I’m Glad My Mother’s Alive” provides an interpretive lens for the entire narrative. It’s the rare case of an insightful spoiler.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Strand Releasing opens “I’m Glad My Mother’s Alive” at New York’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on Friday, where it stands a chance of doing solid business due to strong reviews and word-of-mouth.