“Starbuck” shines at Milwaukee Film Festival Opening Night
Opening this year's festival with "Starbuck," a French-Canadian film about a man who discovers he's the father of 533 kids, couldn't have been a better choice.
The Milwaukee Film Festival opened last night with Starbuck, a French-Canadian film about a man who discovers he’s the father of 533 kids thanks to an unscrupulous sperm bank. They’d have been hard-pressed to find a better choice.
Starbuck’s premise screams “raunchy sex comedy a la Knocked Up,” but director Ken Scott gives us something entirely different. True, some of the building blocks for such a film are there–a not-grown-up-yet adult, a dirty-minded loyal sidekick, opening with a carefully obscured masturbation scene–but Scott’s building an entirely different type of castle.
The film’s eponymous Starbuck, aka David Wozniak (Patrick Huard), may look like a loveable loser, but that’s not quite right. Let’s call him a loveable guy who occasionally loses. He’s $80,000 in debt and has thugs near-drowning him in his bathtub, he’s the worst employee at his family’s butcher shop and his pregnant semi-girlfriend (Julie LeBreton) has just told him she has no intention of letting him be a part of their child’s life (that’s kid 534, if you’re keeping score).
All that changes when he comes home to find a lawyer in his living room, telling him about his 500+ offspring and the class-action lawsuit 142 of them have filed to shatter the anonymity clause protecting his identity. He takes the case to his own lawyer and best friend, Avocat (Antoine Betrand), who tells David not to open the package containing the 142 children’s personal info.
He does, of course. And simple curiosity soon turns into an obsession: serve as an anonymous father/guardian angel.
It’s a conceit managed well, if a bit unrealistically at times. We’re expected to believe every interaction has a positive or neutral outcome, and that only one kid catches on that the 40-year-old who looks like them and shows up out of nowhere weeks after they try to find their father is their father. Some of the scenarios depicted, including one where David has to rush one of his daughters to the hospital after a drug overdose, are odd tonally as well. But the rest, including a quick scene where he hangs out with one son busking in the subway and a longer one where he covers a kid’s shift at a local coffee shop so he can run to an audition, are, simply put, cute as hell.
Anyone can put together a clever series of interactions with 12 dozen children the protagonist doesn’t know about, though. Starbuck’s greater achievement is in finding the moments where this premise trips up against serious moments, and doesn’t shy away from them.
Take Raphaël. When David pulls his dossier out of his stack, there’s a pained shift in his facial expression, and we soon learn why: Raphaël is mentally disabled and in a home alone. David’s first impulse is to run, but after some prompting from the nurse, he stays, remaining with his son the rest of the afternoon. It’s one of the film’s more powerful scenes, and perhaps one of the best insights into how great a person David could be if he keeps turning his life around, kid by kid.
That scene is also an excellent example of Starbuck’s other shining achievement: It’s almost unbelievably subtle for a film about a former sperm donor. A sequence where David listens to people discussing the Starbuck case after it is leaked to the press could have easily been played for laughs, but instead we see it from his perspective, a barrage of accusations and mockery that make him feel like the deranged pervert everyone thinks he is.
It sadly goes without saying that the film’s language (French, with English subtitles) may scare off many theatergoers, who’ll instead gravitate to the upcoming U.S. remake, a 2013-scheduled star vehicle for Vince Vaughn. If you get the chance, see this one instead. Whether or not the Hollywood Starbuck will be a horrible, dumbed-down near-parody of the original remains to be seen. But it certainly can’t be better than this.
The Milwaukee Film Festival runs through Oct. 11 at the Oriental Theatre, Downer Theatre and Fox-Bay Cinema. Check out TCD’s Flick by Flick guides for films opening this weekend and throughout October. For more information, visit the MFF website.