There are some severely displaced feelings at the center of I’m Glad My Mother is Alive, a 2009 French film fresh off a limited U.S. release. Co-directed by veteran Claude Miller and his son Nathan, this fluid examination of troubling post-adoption scars is generally engaging but structurally suspect, and it cops out big time with a meant-to-be-shocking climax that diverts its lead character onto a much less interesting path than he was previously on.
Anchoring the film is a steely-eyed performance by Vincent Rottiers as Thomas, given up for adoption as a toddler along with his infant brother by barely fit mother Julie (Sophie Cattani). After a brief introductory shot of present-day, 20-year-old Thomas, flashbacks reveal key moments at age 4 (played by Gavin Lefebvre) and age 12 (Maxime Renard), where adolescent angst is exacerbated by shame at his adopted state. Adoptive parents Annie (Christine Citti) and Yves (Yves Verhoeven) are at a loss as how to deal with the boy’s increasingly erratic behavior.
These scenes lend some helpful emotional and psychological context for present-day events, but begin to feel like extra expository baggage as Miller and Miller continue to jump back in time throughout the film. Rottiers’s performance is sufficient to allow us inside his head, but the flashbacks seem determined to do that work for us.
As the film’s main plotting begins to unspool, we see Thomas set out to re-connect with his birth mother, who now has another young son, Frédéric (Quentin Gonzalez). Thomas immediately settles into a role as affectionate older brother to the boy, but his relationship with his mother is more uneasy and ambivalent. Without ever having established relational structure with this woman, it’s difficult for Thomas to conceive of her as his mother, and the Millers’ cold, distanced aesthetic for these scenes puts us in that frame of mind as well.
Contrast that with the warm maternal bond back at Thomas’s home, where his relationship with Annie has clearly solidified over the years. While younger brother François (Olivier Guéritée) is off chasing skirts, Thomas admits to his mom he has a girlfriend as well, which accounts for his frequent absence at home.
The confession isn’t just a deceptive excuse. Thomas’s manner of relating to Julie bears deep psychological confusion, and while the Millers aren’t exactly the subtlest at exploring the awkward near-infatuation that begins to surface (they tip their hand with a discovered cache of nude photos), it’s something I wish they’d developed further.
Rather, one jarring moment leads to a flatly on-the-nose conclusion, and any sense that we were witnessing the inner workings of a troubled young man dissipates. Although there are promising elements here, I imagine it won’t be long before my memory of the film follows suit.
The Strand Releasing DVD includes just the film’s theatrical trailer, along with trailers for four other Strand films.