★★★★ / ★★★★
The most challenging movies are supremely difficult to categorize. Such is the case with “Léolo,” written and directed by Jean-Claude Lauzon, so confident with not only in its execution but also with regards to its concept, tackling the way a ten-year-old boy perceives the world around him with humor, sadness, suspense, and curiosity. While its look reminds us of pictures like Víctor Erice’s “El espíritu de la colmena” and Walter Salles’ “Central do Brasil,” both great movies about childhood, it evokes so much creativity and imagination that it wears its own identity even if some of us may not be sure what to make of it, what it hopes to convey, after the initial viewing.
Leo (Maxime Collin) thinks that his father at home is not really his father. He is convinced that his mother (Ginette Reno) was impregnated by an Italian tomato so he changes his name to Léolo. His family is so dysfunctional that his siblings and grandfather (Julien Guiomar) are or have some spent time in a psychiatric institution. The question is, will he end up like his family or will writing, his passion, be his savior?
The story unfolds in an unconventional way. There are different strands—the reality, the fantasy, and those that contain both elements—and it feels like we are looking into vivid, mystical dreams where time is forced to take a backseat and the details of each experience are allowed to hold a special prominence. For instance, the picture goes into some detail about the household’s strange practices involving laxatives. While amusing on the surface, I could not help but suspect a sinister current coursing underneath. There has to be a reason why almost everybody in Léolo’s family ends up in a mental hospital. And yet does pragmatism have a place in a film about a very imaginative boy who may or may not be telling us the truth? Is he even in command of his own faculties?
The narration (voiced by Gilbert Sicotte) is almost like a poetry reading. There is a taste of tiredness in the voice, almost elegiac, as the boy’s thoughts and feelings are expressed. Some of the phrasings are curious, the metaphorical language painting a story on its own while still tethered to and commenting on the images on the screen.
A lot of the humor stems from Léolo’s sexuality blossoming. He has a crush on a girl who lives next door (Guiditta Del Vecchio), a couple of years his senior, but he does not have the courage to approach and speak to her. Instead, he settles for clandestinely watching Bianca and his grandfather engaging in all sorts of sexual practices. At one point, Léolo plots to kill his grandfather out of jealousy. And I found it hilarious.
It is not exactly an emotional experience. Because the images are so alive and so unique, I was more excited about what it would show next. But when it does turn into surprising emotional alleys, like Léolo’s older brother (Yves Montmarquette) and a bully (Lorne Brass), the events hold painful truths. Though Léolo does not admit in his writings that he looks up to his brother, it is implied in the way he rallies to Ferdinand’s side when things get bad.
Despite its bizarre blood, “Léolo” never cheats us by simply relying on quirks or providing beautiful images. There are patterns to be recognized and implications to be drawn. The closer we look, details are revealed. If we so choose to unearth a layer, often there is a well to be explored further. I read a claim that watching the film is “like a trip through mental institution.” It certainly welcomes discussion.