'High Cost' dark and offbeat

JIM SLOTEK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:47 PM ET

I'm the guy who complains about how dour Canadian movies tend to be. So what am I doing giving thumbs up to a movie about a drunk driver who kills a woman's unborn baby?

The High Cost of Living, Deborah Chow's directorial debut -- which won best first feature at last year's Toronto International Film Festival -- reads like any number of mopefests Telefilm greenlights every year. All that's missing is incest.

But off-beat delivery and acting redeem this modestly budgeted "redemption" story. Braff -- fresh off eight years of wise-cracking on Scrubs -- proves he has gravitas as Henry Welles, an American drug dealer living in Montreal. He speaks no French, and the presumption is he's living there illegally, hiding out in Chinatown. His only connection to respectability is Johnny (Julian Lo), the amiable young son of the Chinese family who are his landlords.

The accident, which leaves a previously bright-eyed expectant mother named Nathalie (Isabelle Blais) carrying a dead baby to stillbirth term, could have been just another low point in Henry's life. But when reports of the hit-and-run hit the news, he becomes oddly obsessed with the victim and the aftermath of his actions.

Meanwhile, Nathalie finds no solace from her husband Michel (Patrick Labbe), whose emotional estrangement is so strong and angry, it practically makes him the villain of the piece -- perhaps the movie's one off-key note.

Enter Henry, who tracks down Nathalie and insinuates himself into her life with a comforting shoulder (while keeping the secret of his being the cause of her pain), a perverse turn of events that gives the movie its uncomfortable vibe. It's a balancing act doomed to fall down, particularly when the police get close, but dismayingly off-target, to figuring out the identity of the hit-and-run driver.

For a rookie, Chow displays a surprisingly sure hand with the movie's delicate chemistry and payoff. Her darkly lit, wintry, slushy Montreal is a kind of purgatory-like backdrop where people are looking for warmth, both literally and emotionally. It gets sort of weird when Henry and Nathalie appear to be generating romantic sparks, but that is part of the film's dark quirkiness.

The biggest coup is her success in portraying Henry as someone worth liking, given both his seediness and his culpability in the lowest of crimes. (Of course, it helps that Braff is someone TV fans have spent eight years liking.) As well, Blais plays her transition from optimism to depression with touching grace.

While ultimately not as depressing as its premise makes it sound, this is obviously not a feel-good film. But Chow does make a case for her future as a feature filmmaker. If she does as well painting with a lighter palette, she could definitely be one to keep watching.

(This film is rated 14A)


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