Blended families are very much with us these days, but anyone considering being part of one is not going to find much solace or encouragement in “Three Peaks.”
Directed by Germany’s Jan Zabeil and shot in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains with an international cast, “Three Peaks” is a dark little family drama, a ticking time bomb of a movie that is well made but never totally satisfies.
The film opens not in the mountains but at a big urban swimming pool, where a grown man is goofing around with an 8-year-old boy, simultaneously having fun and helping him learn to swim.
It could be an ad for wholesome family life, but muscular, bearded architect Aaron (Alexander Fehling of “Inglourious Basterds” and TV’s “Homeland”) and young Tristan (Arian Montgomery) are not officially related.
Rather, they are connected through Lia (Bérénice Bejo of “The Artist”), who is Tristan’s mother and has been Aaron’s partner for the past two years, long enough to think about having a child of their own but not long enough to get Tristan on their side.
It’s no secret that family psychodynamics are a potent source of drama, and “Three Peaks” initially involves us for that reason and because of how solid and well-crafted this second film by writer-director Zabeil is.
But when you combine Zabeil’s slow pace with a story that gets increasingly schematic and unconvincing as it goes along, the result is more drawn out than dramatic.
One look at young actor Montgomery lets you know what’s on the filmmaker’s mind. His Tristan is opaque, enigmatic, difficult to read and withdrawn. One big happy blended family this definitely is not.
In fact, each of the three participants exhibits seesaw emotions about this makeshift unit. Mother Lia both wants the two males in her life to be closer and fears outdoorsy Aaron will eclipse the boy’s father in his mind.
As for Aaron, a well-built type who excels in all things physical, he admits that while there are moments when he and Tristan are so close he forgets the boy is not his son, “the next moment I feel he is suffocating me.”
In theory, this kind of ambivalence could make “Three Peaks” more involving, but in practice it means that each of the three parties takes turns getting on each other’s nerves (not to mention the audience’s), a dynamic that is not especially promising.
Soon leaving the urban world behind, this trio heads out for a vacation in a remote cabin in the Dolomites near a mountain with a tripartite configuration that is Aaron’s favorite spot in the world.
Despite the fact that everyone is on their best vacation behavior, that feeling of a situation slightly on edge, of something not being quite right underneath the surface, is unmistakable.
Even if it wasn’t, the presence of objects like chainsaws and mousetraps make it clear that something is going to go wrong. The only question is when, and how badly.
Though it holds out the promise of putting a different spin on a familiar theme, “Three Peaks” never fully delivers and a resolution that tries to have it both ways doesn’t help. With little new to conclude, this film means well but leaves us pretty much on our own.
In German, French and English with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Starts July 12, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles