In practice, the family unit is not always as simple as it looks. Everyone has a family, be they distant or extremely close, and as such everyone is, in some capacity, a testament to the disparate intensities of the bonds that tie members together. There are all sorts of families, and sometimes units try desperately to consider themselves a family, but to no avail. A divorced parent living with a new partner is one such example, a setup that can prove particularly tricky for the child or children involved. Is the other adult a true parent, a close friend, a mentor, or just another person living with their mother or father? This is the plight of Aaron (Alexander Fheling), his partner Lea (Bérénice Bejo), and her young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery), in director Jan Zabeil’s unnerving drama Three Peaks.
The trio get along relatively well, judging by the amount of fun they have in the film’s opening sequence as they spend the day at a water park. Even so, little Tristan showcases very subtle fits of discontent. For instance, Lea, who is French, can no longer get her son to communicate in her native tongue. Tristan also doesn’t demonstrate much emotion. The occasional smile, a chuckle here and there, but his predominant demeanour is pouty and distant. Thinking that a vacation up in the mountains with cozy nights at a log cabin will wash away any dissatisfaction afflicting Tristan, Aaron ends up being the brunt of some extraordinarily passive-aggressive behaviour. Before things get any better, they might get a whole lot worse.
There is a great number of films that have been released throughout the years featuring evil children. Each plays its cards in different ways, sometimes presenting the younglings as truly malevolent forces, such as in The Omen or Children of the Corn, other times as regular humans but with an unforgiveable mean streak in them, as in The Good Son. With Three Peaks, Jan Zabeil takes a vastly more opaque approach, barely grazing little Tristan’s psyche, save for a few critical moments in the much later stages that reveal what might be prompting him to show such disdain towards Aaron. It proves a potent strategy that leaves a chilling effect on the viewer, with the mystery surrounding Tristan’s behaviour causing not only the unfortunate Aaron to question the child’s personality and emotional state, but the audience as well.
Therein lies in large part the film’s brilliance. Tristan could just very well be going through a troubled, confused time. He obviously knows Aaron relatively well (it’s understood that he and Lea have been together for a few years when the movie takes place), and again, does appear to enjoy some of his interactions with the adult. Nevertheless, there is some confusion as to the person he should look up to as his father, who, as a matter of fact, keeps calling on Tristan’s personal cell phone throughout the vacation. A moment in which the child briefly refers to Aaron as ‘father’ makes the latter feel quite happy, but Lea has her own reservations.
Many children that live through the same experience as Tristan also experience incredibly mixed emotions about the man or woman in the household that isn’t there biological parent. Little moments, such as when Tristan tells his biological father over the phone that the swimming instructor improved his technique (the movie has previously shown that it was Aaron), could just mean that he doesn’t want to upset him too much. Then again, perhaps something else is at play. The location’s isolation also compounds the emotional strain. With no one else around to talk to, it is entirely up to the trio to make things right, let the air out, and find the right path towards living together for the foreseeable future.
The performances, all incredibly different from one another, are uniformly strong. Bejo’s Lea becomes a bit of a background character once Aaron takes Tristan on an early morning hike that bleeds into the rest of the movie, but her concern and love for both the men in her life, and how the two interact, is played with classy strength and assuredness. She knows exactly how she wants Tristan to view Aaron — and vice versa — and precious little will convince her of otherwise. Fehling as Aaron gives the movie’s most varied performance given that he is, ostensibly, the odd figure out in the pseudo-familial unit. He truly likes Tristan and wants to be a father figure, but the boy’s attempts to push back frustrate, only adding to the tension. Lastly, Arian Montgomery is pitch-perfect as Tristan. In the picture’s post-screening Q&A, director Zabeil revealed that Montgomery didn’t really have a complete understanding of what exactly was happening in the story, and was often given his lines literally minutes before a take. It results in a curiously off-putting performance. As previously argued, it is very difficult to fully read Tristan. What does he think of Aaron? What does he want? Are the questions he asks that compare Aaron to his biological father merely innocent queries to satisfy curiosity, or is he in fact comparing the two to determine which one is ‘better,’ which one he wants to live with?
Three Peaks is far from a delight, although there are brief moments of awkward humour peppered throughout. It’s primary concern is the subtly strained relationship within a trio of people, two of which who want to be a family, and the other individual less convinced of that objective’s ultimate benefits. The naysayer being a child, it makes things all the more uncomfortable for a mother that has already gone through enough pain, and for a man who might begin to wonder if there is anything he can do at all to improve the situation. No, the picture is not what one would describe as a fun night out at the movies, but a fascinating, and at times disconcerting character piece.