A brutal custody battle is the subject matter in Xavier Legrand‘s debut feature Custody, an often intense piece which suggests a promising future for its director.

The film begins with a dialogue-heavy court hearing in which two solicitors representing estranged couple Miriam (Lea Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Menochet) over the custody rights of their two children. Though their daughter is nearing adulthood and effectively allowed to choose where she goes, their young son Julien (Thomas Gioria) becomes the primary focus.

Both sides are argued for with Miriam’s lawyer implying domestic abuse. By contrast, Antoine is defended via his respectable salary, which contrasts with his wife’s paltry income, and work reputation. Both sides are made to wait a week for the result.

But as time progresses, the arrangements take their toll on Antoine, notably in relation to his son, who he is forced to pick up from the in-laws’ house due to his wife’s refusal to reveal her new address.  His treatment of the young Julien grows from gentle affection to domineering and intimidating, not helped by Julien’s disdain for his father. Antoine’s obsession and reluctance to conform to his new lifestyle eventually leads to unexpected territory with potentially devastating consequences.

With this debut feature, Legrand succeeds at presenting a family in crisis, whilst at the same time showcasing the talents of his actors.

Crucial to the film’s success are the performances of Menochet and Gioria as the David and Goliath-esque father and son, with good support too from Drucker. Menochet gives a wholly convincing performance as a father driven to despair, coming across brutish and pathetic in equal measure. Bouncing off him is the young Gioria, arguably the film’s highlight given how he spends much of the time being reduced to a shaken wreck because of his father’s inconsideration and manipulation.

When we first see them, Julien’s lack of reciprocation for his father’s affection speaks volumes. His refusal to acknowledge Antoine is one part of the problem which helps create the unease that becomes more noticeable over time.

These scenes are mainly shot in the car. In one key moment, Antoine’s unleashes his rage and demands to know where Miriam’s home is. In demonstrating his point, he thumps the top of the car seat, reducing Julien to a confessional mess. The intensity continues when Julien runs away from his father towards a busy road, and the sound of motors is clearly heard, generating an element of suspense. It’s the first of several scenes where clear danger is expressed.

Though the overlong opening sequence suggests a theatrical-like piece focusing on the parents, the film becomes something much deeper. It switches genres from courtroom drama to family drama to psychological thriller in the latter stages. So intense is the way in which the finale takes the film in a new direction, one dare not take one’s eyes off the screen.

Subplots involving the daughter do not build on their potential, but the film remains successful because of its hybrid quality and genuine intensity. Legrand’s directing style is reminiscent of Ken Loach, Asghar Farhadi or Stanley Kubrick. There are also elements of Roman Polanski, with the use of apartments as places of fear.

He takes the viewer to peaceful places which are soon replaced by moments of ferocious outburst, whether it’s a family dinner that suddenly becomes a shouting match or a birthday party being interrupted by unwelcome attention. He makes the settled unsettled and makes good on his use of location and characterisation.

Boosted by performances from the three lead actors, Custody is a mildly-flawed but carefully-handled, unpredictable human drama with enough flair to suggest Legrand has a promising future in French cinema.