As the only one able to hear in the otherwise all-deaf Bélier family teenage Paula (Louane Emera) is indispensable to her parents Gigi (Karin Viard) and Rodolphe (François Damiens) and younger brother Quentin (Luca Gelberg). She helps run their dairy farm and essentially acts as their ears and voice, serving as a sign language interpreter at their cheese stall in the town market. However, the school choir master Monsieur Thomasson (Eric Elmosnino) discovers Paula has another talent: a remarkable singing voice. Impressed with Paula's ability, Monsieur Thomasson urges her to audition for the Maîtrisse de Radio France, an elite choir in Paris. Yet Paula's parents, who rely on her as their means of communication with the outside world, react badly to the news. Torn between dreams of singing and fear of betraying her beloved family, Paula grapples with a painful dilemma.
The highest-grossing French-language film of 2015 earned several César awards including a well-deserved Best Newcomer prize for talented ingenue Louane Emera, but was less warmly received elsewhere. In fact in some countries members of the deaf community chose to boycott La Famille Belier as what The Guardian described as "yet another another cinematic insult to the deaf." In an article penned for the British newspaper Rebecca Atkinson pondered "when will someone write a story about a deaf person that doesn't involve the cliché of 'losing' music." Atkinson argued that the deaf community do not regard an inability to enjoy music as any great loss but rather such thinking reflects the 'cultural myopia' of the mainstream fixated on disability as an obstacle. By comparison a great many cite the Ukranian drama The Tribe (2014) as a more progressive, unsentimental view of the deaf community.
While Atkinson and others that followed her lead raise some pertinent criticisms in a way their view of La Famille Belier is equally myopic. Far from presenting the Bélier clan as tragic figures entrapped by their 'handicap', the film draws them as lively, feisty, multifaceted characters who are more than capable at running their own business and take great joy in their daily lives. In fact a key subplot has Rodolphe run for public office to oppose the mayor's plan to sell agricultural land to property developers. At one point he tells Paula being deaf is not a handicap but an identity and boldly observes is no more a hindrance to public office than the skin colour of U.S. President Barack Obama. Whilst the decision to cast non-hearing impaired actors in deaf roles marks a missed opportunity, Karin Viard and François Damiens give engaging performances as exuberant, likeable characters.
Conceived by co-screenwriter Victoria Bedos, daughter of famed comedian Guy Bedos, who has since gone on to write and star in another coming of age film Vicky Banjo (2016), the premise admittedly ladles on the irony extra thick: girl with a beautiful voice born to deaf parents. As French comedies go La Famille Bélier is not a low-key auteur effort but a broad crowd-pleaser in keeping with Eric Lartigeau's previous work (e.g. the Eric Chabat-Charlotte Gainsbourg rom-com I Do (2006), The Players (2010) with Jean Dujardin though offbeat thriller The Big Picture (2010) co-starring his wife Marina Fois and Romain Duris marked a change of pace). Which is not entirely a bad thing. At heart the plot spins a feel-good yarn not much different from High School Musical (2005) or TV's Glee, hitting all the elements (misfit with hidden talent breaks barriers to win contest and hunky guy) likely to resonate with a young audience beyond language barriers. This could well prove a gateway film to introduce young viewers to French cinema. It helps that rather than some brassy proto-Streisand, the beguiling Emera plays Paula as a gutsy but vulnerable heroine as awkward and uncertain about her new-found talent as she is excited.
Early on a hilarious visit to the town doctor to discuss genital fungus (!) illustrates how much the Béliers depend on Paula to communicate with the hearing world. She is their only voice and it is understandable they do not want to give her up. Yet the story arc is as much concerned with Paula learning to embrace her role within the family as with them coming to grips with this talent everyone else is raving about. Despite minor flaws the film proves a clever and, yes, heartwarming fable dealing with the tension between family loyalty and personal desire.