This feature directorial debut from the one-time assistant of French auteur Leos Carax touches on the autobiographical, as Véro Cratzborn calls upon memories of her own father when exploring issues of mental health and familial bonds. In Into Dad’s Woods, the action is filtered through the eyes of 15-year-old Gina (Léonie Souchaud), the eldest of three siblings and devoted daughter to a troubled father.
When we first meet the family, Gina and her dad Jimmy (Alban Lenoir) are perched in the boughs of a tree, discussing aspects of his favourite topic: wildlife. We’re immediately presented with Jimmy’s eccentric and inquisitive character, but the appearance of a landowner reminding him that he has been fired and is now in fact trespassing immediately flags that Jimmy might not be as stable as the lumberjack harness from which he dangles.
More signposts to his mental volatility soon crop up. Unpredictable behaviour, a scarily short temper and the kind of abrupt amnesia that can put his children at risk indicate that Jimmy might need professional care, a suspicion that is confirmed after a routine trip to the supermarket goes south. While his affliction is never actually named, the film is less about Jimmy’s struggle and more about how it affects his family.
Mother Carole (Ludivine Sagnier) carries the heaviest burden. Forced to juggle a demanding job, two young children and a rebellious daughter, she must also second guess the erratic actions of a father who is impulsive to the point of peril. But of course it is Gina upon which the sharpest spotlight focuses, delving into how this impressionable young girl is unable to reconcile her idealised image of her father with the man incarcerated at an asylum.
It’s an interesting thread that should be ripe for cinematic exploration – but somehow, it just doesn’t quite off. It doesn’t help that Gina can come off as just as selfish and impetuous as her father at times, while Jimmy himself is too inscrutable to serve as a satisfying character study. The institution where he receives his “treatment” is painted only in broad strokes and never allows us more than a two-dimensional view of it – which is perhaps intentionally coincidental with Gina’s own outlook, but which means we can never fully engage with the family’s predicament.
Indeed, it’s Carole who emerges as the most sympathetic character, and while it’s clear that this is Gina’s story, not hers, some more screen time for Sagnier wouldn’t have gone amiss. The thinly sketched characters, alongside some wobbly plot lines that frequently plump for contrivance over believability, make Into Dad’s Woods an intriguing but ultimately flawed and underwhelming portrait of mental illness.
Screening as part of the French Film Festival UK 2020