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Let’s face it: it’s not easy to drag yourself to a movie with super heavy subject matter. As someone who is constantly recommending movies to people, one of the most frequent reasons someone turns down a title is that they don’t want to watch something upsetting. I get it. But hard subjects are a part of life, and when you find a filmmaker that can take such a subject and mold it into both an astoundingly intense thriller and incisive dissection of domestic abuse, you have something that’s really special. Custody is one you don’t want to turn your back on.

Winner of the prestigious Best Director award at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, first time feature director Xavier Legrand takes a bare-bones plot about something as seemingly simple as a family custody battle and turns it into riveting, edge-of-your-seat cinema that will have your heart beating out of your chest. Miriam (Lea Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Menochet) are ending their marriage. Miriam claims that her former husband is abusive, and that her son doesn’t want to see him. Antoine dismisses these claims, as he appears calm and collected before the judge. Then it happens: the two are granted joint custody. What follows is a gripping horror story about a man with two faces, and those that have to endure both sides.

Part of the official selection at the 2018 Miami Film Festival, Custody took home our Jordan Ressler Screenwriting Award, a jury-selected prize for the best screenplay from a first-time writer. And that fact right there is part of what makes Custody such an achievement: not one moment feels like that of a new writer/director. Legrand’s direction, pacing, and dialogue all feel remarkably assured, and they all work together to create a slow burn atmosphere where even the viewer feels unsafe. The movie takes place mostly through the eyes of Miriam and Antoine’s 12-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria). He’s caught in the middle. He’s quiet. But through his blue eyes we see all we need to see. He may be young, but he’s smart enough to know what danger looks like – even when it’s in disguise. As the viewer, you’ll recognize it too, and yet you may still feel small moments of sympathy for the character you’re so afraid of. And just like that, as the runtime of this taut family drama zooms by, you’ll find yourself caught in Legrand’s complex web. Because even when his naturalistic approach makes a scene seem as straightforward as a father and son driving alone in a car together, there’s a simmering beneath the surface that’ll keep you on your toes and watching the screen through your fingers. Domestic thrillers don’t often elicit empathy and emotion this strong. But this isn’t an ordinary thriller, and Legrand has proven beyond a doubt that he’s no ordinary director.

Custody opens at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater Miami on July 20th. For more information, click here.

Lauren Cohen

Lauren Cohen is Miami Film Festival's Co-Director of Programming. She also runs the Festival’s membership level for young professionals, CineClub. Learn more about Lauren on Programmers.