One is vagabond by choice. The other is a vagabond by necessity. Their paths cross in veteran French director Nicole Garcia’s empathetic but at times unfocused “Going Away.”
The 2013 film, largely overlooked in the United States and only now available on DVD from Cohen Media, mixes Dardennes Brothers-style economic realism with big melodramatic revelations. The fit can be awkward at times, but also strikes emotional sparks against a lush south of France backdrop.
An unsettling prologue, which is like a puzzle piece that only makes sense later in the film, shows a group of squatters being rousted by police from an apartment. Then the camera settles on Baptiste (Pierre Rochefort), a small-town substitute school teacher who seems emotionally invested in the lives of his grade-school students.
Except that, offered the chance for a permanent position at the school, Baptiste rejects it, preferring to move from town to town. He does agree to drive one of his pupils home on a Friday, and, when the student’s brusque divorced dad insists it’s not his turn to watch his son, Baptiste offers to babysit over the long weekend. Baptiste seems fully committed in the lives of his students while he’s around – he just is never around for long.
Baptiste agrees to drive the boy to the seaside, where his mother Sandra (Louise Bourgoin), works at a fancy resort restaurant. She’s being hounded by both her lecherous boss and by a couple of former business partners to whom she apparently owes a lot of money. Baptiste agrees to spirit Sandra away, and as the trio hits the road, she slowly uncovers the story of this strange, kind man and his reluctance to stay put in one place.
All the supporting characters are hastily drawn, from the cookie-cutter thugs who menace Sandra to the effete residents of a wealthy country estate who the trio encounters in the final act of the film. This broad characterizations undercut Garcia’s attempt at a gritty realism, particularly in showing Sandra’s situation as she and her son move from town to town, following the tourists and their money, never able to set down roots.
But within this impromptu nuclear family, “Going Away” has something going for it. It’s a romantic drama about a man and woman who, if they can’t stop running, at least agree to run together.