An understated—and at times, clinical to a fault—Oedipal drama of long-simmering resentment and familial love’s ambiguities, I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive risks bringing chilly subjectivity to sensational raw material. The father-son directing team of Claude and Nathan Miller uses an elegantly fractured chronology to track the alienation of Thomas, played by three young actors, from his neglectful good-time-girl mother Julie (Sophie Cattani), who decides to give up custody of him—and his infant brother—when the boy is four. Petulant and resentful of his adoptive parents as a tween (Maxime Renard), Thomas makes abortive contact with Julie thanks to an illegal tip from a sympathetic state worker, then, grown into a 20-year-old sullen mechanic (lip-scarred hunkling Vincent Rottiers), knocks on the door of her suburban Paris apartment and reenters her life as an alternately affectionate and angry prodigal.
That the screenplay for I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive is based on a nonfiction magazine article is a sufficient hint that this can’t end well, and without hamfistedly making either party the villain of this unwisely recommenced relationship, the Millers stage the scenes between Rottiers and Cattani (a pairing of bluntly unaffected performers) with a heavy touch of mutual self-deception and an unmistakable erotic undercurrent. “That stuff is important,” Julie says of her own parents’ sexual incompatibility as she uneasily eyes the leather-jacketed youth at her kitchen table, and Thomas covers up his time with her by telling the nurturing woman who raised him (Christine Citti) that he has a girlfriend.
The filmmakers’ uncondescending work with young children evokes, with a hard edge, the elder Miller’s mentor François Truffaut, but when young-adult Thomas gazes at the bedroom shelves of Julie’s young son, seeing an intimate history that he was denied, the psychology is too pat and reductive. (Of course, the boy also discovers some topless photos of Mom to keep the suppressed incest churning.) Though it generally avoids pedantic moralism, the film subtly makes the dementia of Thomas’s harried adoptive father (Yves Verhoeven) seem like karmic damage from the kid’s intractable maladjustment to his new family. When the horrific climax arrives, the Millers have both prepared the audience for the fruits of this warped filial obsession and kept the messy, nearly fatal emotions at arm’s length.