It's rare to find work in television or films that manage not to exploit a character with a developmental disorder. More often than not, every opportunity is taken to remind the audience that they're not "normal," and it's incredibly unfortunate.
Writer-director Louise Archambault leaves no question as to her main character's disability, and yet manages to gracefully sidestep any nonsense with her film Gabrielle. Its portrayal of a young woman with Williams Syndrome and those closest to her is sincere, and that sincerity is what makes it a strong piece of art.
The titular character, played by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, finds herself in the same place as any twenty-something. She longs to exert autonomy over a life that always seems controlled by others. Her greatest ambitions are that of living on her own, just as her sister Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) does, and being allowed to love her choir mate Martin (Alexandre Landry), the latter of which is one of the most endearing qualities of the film. The struggles that come with both are sometimes overwhelming, and while Archambault does her best to explore some, others end up fizzling with nary a word. Even its ending is a little too sweet and ambiguous for its own good, leaving one to wonder what exactly will happen once credits roll.
Regardless, just as Gabrielle never denies its character the same opportunities to love as any leading lady, it neither avoids the hardships of living with a disability. Along with a cast of actors who are actually handicapped (including Marion-Rivard herself), the film goes a long way to establish a certain sense of realism to the narrative. Her situations need no suspension of disbelief, but given the overbearing control of her family, every simple task completed independently seems a massive success. At the same time, however, the moments in which she fails are most impacting, for example, the anxiety that comes when a faulty toaster sets off the fire alarm digs into the viewer as much as it rattles her.
Her choir's approaching concert, backing for Robert Charlebois (a celebrity who'll likely resonate with Quebecois audiences more so than Americans), is a central point in the film, and Archambault never stops utilizing sound to her film's benefit. The piercing ring of a fire alarm, the voices of a choir singing Charlebois' "Ordinaire," the quiet ripples of pool water; each sound plays a different, but essential, role in the way one views these characters. That sort of attention to sound in a film shows two important things: music as a means of expression, and music (or lack of it) as a catalyst for overwhelming emotion. Those are most notable when contrasted in scenes of Gabrielle out on her own. In one, the musical accompaniment reflects the refreshing independence she's found, while in the other, a deafening silence takes over as she finds herself lost and alone in an unfamiliar locale.
Experiencing life and love without the pressure and responsibility that comes with it is the dream of any ambitious person in their twenties. While that sense of autonomy is often shown through the perspective of the perfectly stable and privileged, Louise Archambault looks to present the world with a different star. Gabrielle really is a film that screams joie de vivre with every fiber of its being, presenting the world with a character that wants to experience life, just as those around her do, through as genuine a lens possible.
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Gabrielle comes to Coral Gables Art Cinema Friday, April 18.