A 10-year-old boy goes on a road trip with his father to see Europe’s biggest dam, traveling through beautiful countryside and mountains.
At first, the trip seems a success, with both talking and reconnecting. But as the trip progresses and the pair inevitably clashes, long-simmer feelings begin to emerge, and neither father nor son is equipped to traverse the distance that has grown between them. Their inability to break through to one another bubbles up into a much larger confrontation — and illuminates a bigger impasse than either ever imagined.
Writer-director Samuel Grandchamp’s drama is both a road trip journey in its stunning visuals and a chamber drama in its intimate emotional scale, focused as it is on the push and pull between two characters who long to bridge the chasm between themselves but only succeed in widening it.
Its strength as a narrative lies in its sharply acute yet nuanced observation of unspoken feelings, and how these undercurrents well up and shape their interactions with one another.
This emotional intelligence is woven in its excellent writing, which skillfully reveals a relationship eventually defined by its gaps and chasms, as well a naturalistic visual approach that, besides being beautiful to look at, feels often like a clear-eyed documentary of a strained relationship and a broken family.
The camera and editing are elegantly pared-down and precise, focusing especially on the son’s reactions. This micro-currents of feeling are brought to life by an excellent performance by young actor Alessio Balossi, who is able to evoke the boy’s excitement and hopes at seeing the dam and spending time with his father figure — as well as the disappointment he feels in his father’s words and behavior when he reacts to conflict.
Instead of openness or honesty, however, the father leans on the traditional power of the parental role to maintain control of the situation — which only opens up a long-dormant wellspring of conflict that drives a wedge further between the duo, one that doesn’t bode well in the future for either.
“The Big Dam” is very much about fathers, sons and broken families, and its ending is quiet and all the more heartbreaking for being so delicately rendered. Breaking up a family is a sadly common occurrence in modern society, but rarely are its long-term consequences portrayed with such insight and lucidity. Despite an undeniable amount of love, there just isn’t an easy fix for the significant absence of a parent in a child’s life, and no trip can take the place of patient, steady investment of attention and care into such an important bond.
When the foundation of a relationship isn’t solid, the small fissures and cracks that form take on greater significance — and can’t easily be repaired, despite the best of intentions.