A life's story, from stormy youth to bleak adulthood

The Strobbes: Kenneth Vanbaeden (second from right), as Gunther, with his father and uncles.
The Strobbes: Kenneth Vanbaeden (second from right), as Gunther, with his father and uncles.
Posted: June 04, 2010

Not a great place to grow up, the Strobbe house: a cramped, ramshackle place with the toilet out back, a drunken father and three drunken uncles, their kindly but ineffectual mother pottering around, and Gunther - the protagonist of this very fine film from Holland - trying to focus on his schoolwork while mopping up the vomit and dodging the brawls.

The Misfortunates, a beautifully shot adaptation of a semiautobiographical novel by Dimitri Verhulst, toggles between black and white and color, between Gunther's stormy adolescence, with its boozings and beatings, and his adulthood, when he's an aspiring novelist (he has the rejection letters to prove it) with a wife he doesn't love and a baby he didn't want.

Kenneth Vanbaeden, wearing an '80s mullet and a watchful gaze, is compelling as Gunther the kid; Valentijn Dhaenens, hard and sad-eyed, plays him as an adult. The cumulative effect is akin to the Noah Taylor/Geoffrey Rush team-up on Shine: a fully formed character whose history and fate we come to care about deeply.

Director Felix Van Groeningen moves The Misfortunates along with a roiling energy that, appropriately, has a beer-besotted exuberance about it. There's whimsy and raunchy humor here, but also an underlying sense of darkness and despair.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

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