After an incident of breathtakingly casual neglect, a pair of children are taken from their young single mother (Sophie Cattani) and adopted by a childless middle-class couple in I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive, a drama from French father-son directors Claude and Nathan Miller. The younger boy, just a baby, fits into his new life with ease, to the point of being given (and growing into) a new name. But the older brother guards the vague memory of his biological mother like an infection he’d rather not shake, aging into a resentful, angry teenager and then a sullen, moody young man, played by Vincent Rottiers. I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive skips between these stages of his life, but spends the bulk of its time with him as that almost-adult, when he looks up his birth mother and reinserts himself into her life, to no happy end.
I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive is packed with Freudian implications—the relationship between mother and son unfolds a lot like a romance, with Rottiers showing up at Cattani’s door with flowers and chocolates as if courting a new love, and Cattani quickly enlisting him as a substitute parent for her newest child. The film doesn’t treat these developments as an excuse for pop psychology; it’s more about the lining up of two damaged edges. Cattani lacks any deep maternal instinct, and reflexively treats her grown son as she would the new man in her life, while Rottiers is desperate to spend time with his mother while needing to prove how little he needs her. The carelessness with which she treats the half-brother he’s just met also causes him alarm, and soon the three have formed a wobbly temporary family.
Until the film takes an abrupt, annoyingly melodramatic late turn, the Millers handle Rottiers’ character with great delicacy, aided by strong lead performances and a refusal to show Rottiers’ adopted home as either idealized or seriously lacking. Rottiers is excellent at embodying someone who projects vulnerability most when he’s attempting strength, and who continually, heartbreakingly searches his mother for signs of attachment or regrets that fail to surface. By the time the implications of the title become clear, it’s hard to tell whether the sense of dread that’s been building has more to do with the lost young man, or the emotional complexity that disappears in favor of characters bluntly outlining thoughts previously left elegantly unsaid.