Custody begins as a separated couple, Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Miriam (Léa Drucker), sit before a magistrate who will decide the fate of their children. Their daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) is nearly grown, so their 11-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria) is really the bone of contention. And he doesn’t want to see his abusive father. But the court grants the father weekend visits anyway. And it is immediately apparent that the court made a huge mistake. What follows is like watching the fuse on a bomb slowing burning down. You’re waiting for the explosion, but hoping that someone comes along to defuse it, even though you know that is unlikely. It’s harrowing!

During the court proceeding with the judge, Miriam’s lawyer gives the judge a statement from Julien where he says he is afraid his dad will hurt his mom again. But Antoine’s lawyer counters that the boy is only being led to say these things by the mother. And that the boy “needs” to have his father in his life. But at the first visit, Julien’s body language says it all. He doesn’t look at his father or talk to him. He’s only doing what he has to. And he’s petrified. It becomes clear that Antoine is using him to get to his wife who is trying her best to stay far away from his abuse. She’s moved to a new apartment and won’t give Antoine the address. That he abused her before and would do it again is a given. But he’s determined to get her back, whatever that takes.

The performances in this movie are amazing all around. Léa Drucker’s Miriam feels every bit the abused woman, measuring her every word and gesture around the abuser lest he strike out again. And Denis Ménochet’s Antoine fully embodies the wounded brute who feels entirely victimized and within his rights to act out. The film’s director Xavier Legrand starred in Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants as a child, and the experience clearly gave him insight into directing children. Thomas Gioria’s performance as Julian is heartbreakingly real. And the tension created by this story of the abuser coming back for more keeps you on the edge of your seat right up until the inevitable end. It’s not easy to watch, but I highly recommend it.

Interesting side note: In 2013, Director Xavier Legrand was nominated for an Academy Award for his Best Live Action Short Film called Just Before Losing Everything. It was the prequel to Custody, about the day Miriam decides to leave Antoine, taking her kids and hitting the road. And it starred the same actors, except for Gioria. [trailer below]

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