Film Review: ‘Family First’

The title spells out the theme in the crime drama “Family First,” and if that weren’t enough, the title itself is inked out in cursive on one of the main character’s forearms, a reminder to everyone about how the priorities of mob-linked siblings must align. Quebecois director Sophie Dupuis’ debut feature, selected as Canada’s Oscar foreign language submission, tries to make a virtue of simplicity, whittling the trials of a conflicted goon down to an 87-minute pressure cooker, driving its reluctant hero into action. Yet Dupuis isn’t exactly the first to tackle a “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” gangland scenario, and the no-frills storytelling mostly works against her, rendering the film’s Verdun, Montreal, underworld disappointingly nondescript.

In this “Animal Kingdom”-like domestic scenario, the mother (Maude Guérin) is too swamped by alcoholism to run the show, so it’s up to her son JP (Jean-Simon Leduc) to take care of the family. JP wants to be an electrician, and appears to be excelling at night-school trade classes, where other students are shown peeking at his written exams and consulting him on wiring jobs out in the field. Yet those ambitions take a back seat to to his illicit work as a debt collector for his sleazy uncle (Paul Ahmarani), who wants JP to deepen his commitment to the family business. The situation is complicated by JP’s volatile brother Vincent (Théodore Pellerin), whose utter recklessness on and off the job make it less a partnership for JP than a babysitting assignment: He needs to take the lead on beatings and kneecappings just to keep Vincent in line. And it’s just as dangerous when they’re bar-hopping and Vincent goes out looking for trouble.