Stuck in between the bitterness and acrimony that usually comes with a separation or divorce are the children, emotionally divided by both sides and subjected to new, uglier facets of their parents they hadn’t seen before. Director Xavier Legrand’s Custody picks up one such story, with an 11-year-old boy called Julien (Thomas Gioria), the subject of a custody dispute between mother of two Miriam (Lea Drucker), and father, Antoine (Denis Ménochet).
Legrand had previously picked up an Oscar nomination in 2013 for his short, Just Before Losing Everything (Avant que de tout perdre), which showed Miriam and her two kids fleeing their abusive home, although to receive the full effect of the drama, it is probably better not to watch this before taking on the feature length version.
The opening scene of Legrand’s début extensively lays out the two opposing arguments as put forward by their barristers to the family court judge. Miriam accuses Antoine of domestic abuse – a charge he vehemently denies - and despite submissions from both Julien and his older teenage sister Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) stating their desire not to see their father, joint custody is granted by the judge.
Due to her age, Joséphine has the option not to see her father at all, one that she chooses to take, while Julien is forced to reluctantly spend every other weekend with his father. From there the story follows Julien’s time spent with Antoine where it quickly becomes clear that Miriam’s accusations were wholly justified.
It is here that Legrand manages to generate anxiety-inducing levels of tension, as Antoine’s domineering and manipulative behaviour terrorises the life out of the young boy. Denis Ménochet’s imposing physique and short bursts of temper are used effectively enough without having to show actual onscreen violence. He is reminiscent of James Gandolfini in that respect, although without the softer features that suggested a more playful side was always lingering underneath.
The performances are strong and young Thomas Gioria is particularly impressive in his first film as a boy who instinctively wants to love and spend time with his father, but any affection he has is shrouded in fear and disgust at Antoine's behaviour. Ménochet and Lea Drucker also do what they can with an undercooked script that does well in setting up the relationship dynamics but veers towards a somewhat predictable conclusion.
What the opening scene appears to suggest is a look at the perspectives of both parents and although it is made very obvious where the truth lies, Legrand seems reluctant to dig beyond the surface portraits of the characters we are shown at the start.
How Antoine is sketched is probably the biggest problem, with no insight given into what drives him to treat his own son so despicably. We don’t need to empathise with the man but even seeing him spend time with Julien at his parents' house adds precious little to his personality. He’s violent, controlling and abusive, that much is made clear early on. Yet, if we are to believe the script his mood only ever veers between anger and jealousy.
That lessens the impact of the tension somewhat as you would expect to feel concerned while watching a grown man –especially one the size of Antoine – glowering and shouting at a young defenceless boy. That set-up is a relatively easy one to contrive, fleshing it out to create a more complex study about domestic abuse is another thing entirely.
Custody shows us how devastating domestic violence can be, and there can never be enough reminders about how emotionally crippling it is for young children in particular. Beyond that there is a lot more challenging territory to cover which Legrand is unfortunately reluctant to do.