Misfortunates, The

By Laura Gatewood

Belgian Drama

(De helaasheid der dingen)
"The Misfortunates" is a difficult film to watch but is worth the effort if the viewer can get past the unrelenting showcase of the depressingly dysfunctional “family” that makes up the Strobbe brothers.
The movie, helmed by Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groenengen and based on the bestselling semi-autobiographical novel by Dimitri Verhulst, premiered at Cannes last year and won a special mention awarded by the C.I.C.A.E. Labeled a tragicomedy, a somewhat generous term since tragedy features more pervasively, the film follows the often harrowing tale of small-town postman cum lay about Celle Strobbe’s son, Gunther, from a young teenager growing up surrounded by his drunkard father, passive grandmother, and three uncles who never met a bottle or an insult they didn’t attack, to his adulthood, one that bears the scars of the negative emotional legacies he must eventually learn to set down in order to find fulfillment. The audience doesn’t learn anything new about the effects of bad parenting by watching the movie, but the tremendous acting and moving coming-of-age story make The Misfortunates a good film that only gets better with a little time and reflection.
Van Groenengen begins the film with an introduction to the adult Gunther, an emotionally distant would-be novelist still yearning to find his maturity on the page and in his real life. It then jumps back in time to Gunther at thirteen, living on the fringe of social acceptance in his grandmother’s house with her four adult sons, all of whom have given up on living a productive life in favor of living in the moment, as long as it’s a drunken one.
Teenage Gunther’s immediate male adult role models are his drunkard father and three equally boozy and irresponsible uncles, each of whom operates with a two pronged emotional instrument, only capable of switching back and forth between familial pride, too easily confused as love, and prideful anger at any perceived insult.   His father’s reliability as a caretaker is wittily captured in the narrator’s observation that “His postman’s salary went entirely to the bar. That was his way of protecting us from the temptations of capitalism.” But what these men do offer Gunther in spades are non-stop escapades into carefree fun, whether through teaching him dirty drunken folksongs composed entirely of four letter words, crashing a stranger’s house to watch a Roy Orbison concert after their TV is repossessed, or showing him how to win the town’s beer drinking contests. But the flip side of the uncles’ juvenile lifestyle are four grown men who respond with verbal and physical violence if any affront to the Strobbe name is perceived, even in the case of Gunther, who takes a horrific beating from his father after he asks if he can board during the schoolwork so as not to fall behind in his studies. Growing up on an emotional landscape riddled with narcissistic minefields as parents, it is no wonder that when adult Gunther accidentally impregnates his girlfriend, he wishes that the baby would be stillborn. But The Misfortunates isn’t a bleak fest through to the end, and though much of Gunther’s formative years are spent waiting for an adult to take responsibility for his childhood, his adult reflections and eventual success as a novelist provide him the outlets to learn how not to fall into the same man-child compromise his father and uncles chose for themselves.  
The acting in The Misfortunates is great across the board, with the standout being Koen de Graeve’s portrayal of Celle Strobbe’s emotionally crippled yet hurting father, and newcomer Kenneth Vanbaeden as young Gunther, who wisely underplays his scenes against the expressive volatility of the adult actors. Van Groenengen adopts an unapologetic realism that doesn’t pander for any sentimentality, the right tone for such a masculine film, and Ruben Impens’s impressive cinematography conveys the gritty low-income lifestyles of the Strobbe’s perfectly.    The Misfortunates is a worthwhile cinema experience, and should be watched for the great acting and the almost heroic and impactful tale of Gunther forcing himself to grow from a man closed off from life because he doesn’t want to become what he learned to be as a teenager into one who opens up to his emotions because he finally believes in the strength his father once saw in him that he was bound for a better life than the Strobbe men he grew up around.
Kenneth Vanbaeden: Young Gunther Strobbe
Valentijn Dhaenens: Gunther Strobbe
Koen de Graeve: Celle Strobbe
Wouter Hendrickx: Lowie Strobbe
Johan Heldenbergh: Pieter Strobbe
Bert Haelvoet: Koen Strobbe
Gilda de Bal: Grandmother
Directed by Felix Van Groeningen
Writtten by Felix Van Groeningen, Christophe Dirickx, and Dimitri Verhulst