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The Finishers: Film with a new take on rebuilding relationships

Nils Tavernier did his research before The Finishers.

Father and son relationships tend to get quite a run at the movies. It's there in a family drama where father and adult son work it out - as they finally do in Silver Linings Playbook. Other dramas with a lower profile have also featured this important relationship. Life as a House, for example, in which Kevin Kline plays a recalcitrant father opposite teen rebel Hayden Christensen, and Beginners, in which Ewan McGregor has to sort out his filial feelings before moving on.

French director Nils Tavernier (son of veteran director Bertrand Tavernier) has made a new contribution to the conversation with The Finishers. It is the sweet and sentimental story of a boy with a disability who wants to reverse the growing alienation between himself and the father who began to inch away when he realised his son was never going to walk.

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Though seventeen-year-old Julien enjoys the unbridled affection of his mother, he has always felt distant from his father, Paul. The situation quickly comes to a head when Julien challenges his father to jointly take part in an upcoming triathlon. Together, father and son will train for the gauntlet that will galvanize their newly forged bond.

Fabien Heraud, cast in the role of high-schooler Julien, suffers a form of cerebral palsy himself. Occasionally, directors such as Tavernier jnr and Australian director Rolf de Heer have directed actors suffering the condition.

Tavernier coached Heraud for four months for the role, his first in a film. ''He tired very fast. It is part of his pathology. So he needed to rest twice a day,'' he said.

The Finishers opened the French Film Festival in Canberra last month. Unabashedly feel-good fare, it tells of a 17-year-old who convinces his father to do an ironman triathlon with him. And not simply enter, but finish. The French title, De Toutes Nos Forces, which roughly translates ''with all our might'', conveys the effort necessary for a 3.86-kilometre swim, a 180.25-kilometre bicycle ride and a 42.2-kilometre run.

Julien's family home is about eight hours' drive from the ironman championship.


''I didn't want to shoot loneliness in the kitchen,'' Tavernier said. ''I wanted to have it in a huge, big area, which also gives a sense of the distance between the characters.''

Tavernier's filmography is largely documentary and this is his first fiction feature. In preparation, he spent two years observing children being treated for neurological problems in the Necker Hospital, Paris. He was moved by the young patients, but also by their parents. The father, Paul, carries a lot of baggage, Tavernier observed. ''He just can't deal with it.''

The filmmaker said he was aware of the impact on parents of a child with disability, including high levels of guilt. ''I was listening and observing families with problems like these over a long period of time. I saw a lot of fathers who just wanted to run away.''

On the other hand, there were fathers who wanted to shoulder so much of the responsibility, like the mother in his film, that their over-protectiveness left their child feeling acutely trapped.

''I also saw fathers who became a real hero for their child, for whom the difficult parental experience bought out the best in them.''

Julien feels his father's rejection keenly and watches his parents growing apart until he decides to make his move. ''It's not a big deal if we don't finish,'' offers Julien. ''Yes, it is,'' counters his dad, Paul (played by Jacques Gamblin), warming to the idea. ''I want to go to the end with you.''

Tavernier thinks Julien understands that he needs to get back to basics in his relationship with his father to set things right. The ending offers no surprise and there's not a lot of depth. But for all the predictability, there is the naturalism of the lead performances, Heraud's engaging presence and the film's open heart.

Jane Freebury interviewed Nils Tavernier in Paris as a guest of Unifrance last November.