Underground – the second feature from Canadian writer/director Sophie Dupuis – starts with a mine explosion and ends with a dramatic rescue attempt, and yet that might give the viewer the wrong idea about what to expect from the rest of the film.
It’s more of an emotional drama than an action movie, centred on intense conversations between three men who are all wounded in different ways. Max (Joakim Robillard) is struggling to live with the guilt of knowing that his recklessness caused a serious brain injury to his friend Julien (Théodore Pellerin). Julien has forgiven Max, but is still contending with the knowledge that the things that used to come easy to him, like speaking or using his hands, will never be easy again. And Julien’s dad Mario (James Hyndman) is finding it near-impossible to contain his fury at the man who wrecked his son’s life.
A combustible set-up, sure, but Underground doesn’t only rely on that tension to power the narrative. Dupuis sits with each of the men, patiently, as their complex inner landscapes unfurl before us. There are no villains here. We see how distraught Max is about what he’s done, and we know there’s nothing he can do to put it right. We also see why Mario would despise Max, whose carelessness caused permanent, grave damage to his beloved son. One of Underground’s biggest themes is how agonising it can be to forgive someone, and it shows – with devastating empathy – what can happen when a person finds forgiveness an impossible thing to grant.
The other major theme is the courage it takes to make the best of a bad situation, and no one in this movie is in a worse situation than Julien. It’s not just the physical challenges of his injury, either. We see that people don’t know how to be around him; they either avoid him out of awkwardness, or smother him out of overprotectiveness (and partially guilt, in the case of Max). We see that his loss of the ability to be treated normally by his friends or family is just as painful as the loss of his ability to walk and talk without difficulty. Still, he persists. He finds new ways of achieving old tasks, and – often thanks to Max’s dogged encouragement – his friends start to lose their discomfort around him. Julien knows that it’s never going to be like before, but that accepting his present is a whole lot healthier than lamenting the past. Although all the performances here are excellent, its Théodore Pellerin’s wrenching portrayal of Julien’s journey that lingers longest.
In an ironic twist, Underground’s underground sequences are the weakest in the movie – though they’re shot with an admirable focus on the process and detail of launching such a rescue mission, they just aren’t as emotionally compelling as the aboveground interactions between Max, Julien, and Mario. Happily, those interactions far outnumber the subterranean scenes, and the result is a beautiful film that’s complex and bruising – and ultimately, hopeful.