With the title of “The Finishers” and an opening scene pulled from the very end of the film, there shouldn’t be much suspense in Nils Tavernier’s drama about a father and son who race in the Ironman Challenge together, but damn if what’s in the middle isn’t extraordinarily affecting, even if there are a hundred other films that have jerked tears from a similar premise.
A heart tugger that never tugs too hard, it finds Paul and his son Julien living in the verdant Alpes d’Azur, though Paul is rarely around to enjoy it, spending as much time away from his family as possible, alone skiing on the nearby slopes or in his garage tinkering with his car. A large part of that is because Julien is forced to stay at home, bound to a wheelchair because of congenital palsy in the care of his mother (Alexandra Lamy) and his birth 17 years earlier clearly changed Paul, who once frequently challenged himself to endurance tests such as the Ironman Challenge and now has settled for volunteering at the local fire department. Yet this is a piece of history Julien is unaware of until his friend Yohan uncovers some old photos in the family’s garage and when he does, he sees the opportunity to finally get out of the house, with a chance to bond with his father a side benefit. Though it takes some convincing, Paul accedes.
In the hands of Jacques Gamblin and Fabien Héraud, who play Paul and Julien respectively, the film never becomes treacly or artificial, though it hardly embraces Dardenne-esque realism, either. Utilizing the gorgeous mountain scenery to show Paul and Julien training with soaring overhead views and long tracking shots, it’s just as effective as a travelogue as it is a narrative.
Yet Gamblin and Héraud are just as interesting to watch, each dignified in their way and their characters given compelling motivations – Paul is allowed to reclaim his competitive edge and take pride in seeing his son become the man he envisioned while he was in the womb as Julien realizes his dream to be an active part of his family and his community. Although the actors have a light touch, Tavernier shows even greater restraint, resulting in tender, delicate and even ocassionally mischievous moments – a meet-cute between Julien and a redhead at his school requires only a single glance and Paul and Julien’s relationship becomes more unspoken and understood over time.
In the wake of the similarly-themed smash “The Intouchables” in its native France, it would seem like “The Finishers” might be a feel-good rehash, but Tavernier’s film comes by all of emotional punch honestly. There are a handful of lighter moments, but like its central duo, the film never loses sight of where it’s going and while there may be no surprises in terms of where this story ends up, there surely is in “The Finishers” simple emotional power.
“The Finishers” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays at the Toronto Film Festival twice more on Tuesday, September 10th and Sunday, September 15th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 2.