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Review: Boyhood wartime escape drama ‘A Bag of Marbles’ is an emotional roller coaster

Tournage Un sac de Billes
“A Bag of Marbles” stars Batyste Fleurial Palmieri, from left, Patrick Bruel and Dorian Le Clech.
(Thibault Grabherr / Gaumont)

The historical drama “A Bag of Marbles” (“Un sac de billes”) turns Nazi-occupied France into an obstacle course for two young Jewish boys on the run, and their plight into slickly sentimental thriller material for all of us.

Jo (Dorian Le Clech) and Maurice (Batyste Fleurial Palmieri) are the youngest of four sons to a conscientious barber (Patrick Bruel) and his music-loving wife (Elsa Zylberstein), proud Parisian Jews who nevertheless see the writing on the wall in 1942 and arrange to split the family up into pairs and reunite in Nice. Given 20,000 Francs and explicit traveling instructions — beginning with never admit to being Jewish — Jo and Maurice embark on an odyssey marked by danger, bravery and a certain mischievously enjoyable, parentless freedom.

Reality sets in, though, when the Nazis’ violent reach necessitates further separations and escapes, threatening the prospect of an eventual family reunion. Director Christian Duguay is much more comfortable handling the sledgehammer superficialities of near-miss action and prankish boyhood than the complicated, turbulent emotions surrounding children imperiled during wartime. (The material is based on a 1973 autobiographical memoir by Joseph Joffo.)

Not that anyone would expect Louis Malle levels of moral insight here, but even occasional war-as-entertainment recidivist Steven Spielberg might look at Duguay’s unrepentant roller-coaster mind-set and lack of interest in the dimensionality of other characters and say, “Whoa there, pal.”

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“A Bag of Marbles”

French, German, Russian and Yiddish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle Royal and Town Center

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