When his father suffers a heart attack, 30-year-old Antoine (a focused and smoldering Nicolas Cazale) leaves his independent life in Paris and returns to his childhood home in the country to help with the family's grocery business. Estranged for a decade because of ongoing family strife, Antoine is only half-heartedly welcomed back. His bed-ridden dad (Daniel Duval) hates him, his mom (Jeanne Goupil) barely knows him anymore, and his brother, Francois (Stephan Guerin-Tillie), is harboring deep-seeded resentments (as well as some painful personal secrets). Antoine seems anesthetized to his family's disapproval ("he left, selfishly, without a word") and he takes on the responsibility to appease his mother, the only one with whom he's retained a fraction of a kinship. He's accompanied on his trip by Claire (bright French actress Clotilde Hesme, previously seen in Phillipe Garrel's overpraised "Regular Lovers"), a 26-year-old college student who lives in his apartment building and on whom he has a not-so-secret crush.
"The Grocer's Son" rolls out slowly, so slowly that, in the beginning, it gets dangerously close to boring territory. Thankfully, it knows just when and how to pick itself up. As soon as Antoine gets behind the wheel of his family's grocery-on-the-go delivery truck (do they have those all over France?), the film comes wonderfully to life. He sets out on his father's route, meets all of his colorful regulars, and quickly learns that small-town service (in the movies, at least) often comes with customer favors and gracious, long-running tabs. One woman is flustered at Antoine's new policy of payment in full. Another never seems to have exact change. One man pays with eggs and booze. And then there's the grumpy town witch, who only shops if she's in the mood. This is one of those movies that's lit up by its minor characters, and the audience comes to appreciate them long before Antoine does. What he sees as annoyances, we see as defining quirks. Where he sees walls of old tradition, we see basic humanity at its best. The fact that he eventually comes around is one of the best kinds of movie character growth: he gradually earns the respect and admiration of the viewer.
Plenty of things happen before that, of course, including layers of family drama and a sweet, subdued romance. It's clear from the beginning that Claire, the open mind to Antoine's closed-up soul, will have a lasting effect on the lead character. That his growth is prompted and sustained by her presence is as silent as their budding relationship. This film presents a love story that everyone knows about but no one talks about, a rare approach that I found quite refreshing. There's a mutual understanding between Antoine and Claire that's kept private, even from the audience, making a beautiful scene of simultaneous love-making and art-making that much more special and poignant.
Around the middle of the movie, Claire observes, "it's never too late to change your life," and every character, more or less, ultimately proves that statement true. No one in "The Grocer's Son" sees a perfect resolution but everyone sees personal progress. Cultural progress is where it may be lacking, as Antoine only earns his father's respect through a display of hard work, suggesting that diligence alone is a sufficient foundation for a father-son bond. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. What's important is that Antoine finds peace by the end, finally able to stop rebelling and embrace the simple pleasures of life. In that sense, I saw a bit of myself watching this movie. Not long ago, I fostered an immature urge of defiance. Only recently have I managed to openly embrace simple pleasures, simple pleasures like this film.