What is it about movies featuring children that give the viewer such a sense of place? Mon oncle Antoine might be just another impeccably made story of the childhood transition from boy to man based on story alone. The plot points are delivered effectively and movingly, the cast is affectless and sympathetic, and the direction alternates between gritty neo-realism and whimsy with a deft and confident hand. But all these things could be said about any number of movies: Ratcatcher, My Life as a Dog, Murmur of the Heart, Kes, The 400 Blows - and that's just movies in the Criterion Collection. What unique about this film - and many others in that list - is the priceless opportunity to be exposed to a life unlike any seen on the big screen. For some reason, this tends to happen frequently when a child is at the center of the story.
Here, it's Benoit, a boy being raised in the mining towns of Quebec in the 1940s by his aunt and uncle, who run the local general store. There are elements here that are recognizable from other films about mining towns, poor country villages, nostalgic coming of age tales. But the culture and geography are uniquely Quebecois, and its this remarkably detailed look into a relatively close but seemingly impossibly distant world that makes the film so gripping. In fact, most of the first half hour of the film is devoted to characters other than Benoit, like a man frustrated with his English-speaking boss who leaves his family to work in the forest where he will be happier. Benoit and this family converge in the end in a very moving sequence that had me frozen, staring at the screen.
The story of Benoit has plenty of intense emotional moments, but it's the little details and broad strokes of the place where the movie becomes more than its story. We see a rundown bar the local workers congregate at, the thoughtless Christmas presents the local boss has tossed into the mud by workers too lazy to get out of their truck. It's the 1940s, but Benoit's uncle still makes his trek to pick up bodies (as part of the store, they run a funeral home) by horse and carriage. The film might be a coming of age story like any other until these concrete touches elevate it to the realm of essential world cinema.