If there’s a threshold at which all-embracing human compassion actually becomes grating, Gabrielle finds it. Utilizing members of the special-needs community as part of its ensemble, this oppressively PC drama funnels the classic themes of a bildungsroman—questions of sexual enlightenment and personal autonomy (the latter something of a mantra-like buzzword in the often heavy-handed screenplay)—through the lens of the intellectually disabled plight, ostensibly seeking to highlight the lack of an experiential gap between the aging process of an average teenager and that of the titular Williams syndrome-afflicted heroine. At 22, gifted singer Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard), like anyone, yearns for love and independence, and her pursuit of such social licenses is fraught with the usual barriers: protective family members, behavioral codes, economic restraints. Be that as it may, the film forcefully stresses the universality of Gabrielle’s trajectory throughout, right up to the saccharine choral-concert finale—a self-consciously heart-warming cap designed to leave the audience convinced that all is right in the world.
Problem is, writer-director Louise Archambault’s neatly affirmative denouement is at odds with the more uncertain reality occurring at the edges of the film’s drama. Gabrielle targets a simplistic triumph-of-the-human-spirit sentiment even as it can’t help but expose the troubling realities of its narrative circumstances. For one, Gabrielle’s infatuation with her choral partner, Martin (professional actor Alexandre Landry), represents a beautifully pure expression of human desire made near-spiritual by the steamy cinematography and soundtrack muffling featured every time they get intimate, but their blossoming relationship—which twice leads to sloppy, quite possibly unsafe public sex—seems at a stage too premature to support Gabrielle’s much-longed-for elopement and domestic arrangement. Yet, in spite of the transparent vulnerabilities in their affair, the only person who openly opposes (and ultimately forbids) complete freedom within their romance is Martin’s mother (Marie Gignac), a leery enigma whose limited presence amounts to paranoiac watchfulness over her son and rumored threats of groundings.
Another key subplot revolves around Gabrielle’s relationship with her sister, Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), with whom she lives. One day Sophie tests Gabrielle’s self-sufficiency by leaving her home alone; that night, she returns to a smoky apartment and her diabetic sister nursing her lovesickness with raspberry jam toast and a glass of whole milk. Yet Sophie’s eventual tear-filled departure from Gabrielle to live across the globe with her boyfriend, a music teacher at a daycare for underprivileged children in India (almost everyone’s an altruist in the film), appears to set loose Gabrielle’s independence, reawakening her tryst with Martin. Following Sophie’s exodus, Archambault reprises the film’s opening shot of Gabrielle floating peacefully in a pool, an image that implies a kind of rebirth. Despite Sophie’s productive role as mentor, her exit cues the suggestion that a weight has been lifted.
Approaching a touchy subject like mental disability with the banal humanistic statement that those suffering from it are no different, and no less deserving of affection and freedom as anyone else is easy; exploring the nuanced and unfortunate limitations separating a disenfranchised mind from a fine-tuned one is a more difficult challenge, and, arguably, grounds for more interesting drama. Despite the intended authenticity of its handheld, jump-cut aesthetic—a visual cliché designed to evoke documentary rawness—Gabrielle neuters its drama by catering everything toward an egalitarian message. True to the film’s naïvely glass-half-full outlook, Archambault’s efforts are most fully appreciated when simply reveling in the musical talents of her cast, as a series of uninterrupted, lovingly recorded rehearsals can attest.