THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX uses the perspective of a child to tell a very mature, very troubling story. It’s a device that could be precious if handled with less sensitivity, less intelligence than is found in Max Minghella’s wondrous adaptation, directed by Alexandre Aja, of Liz Johnson’s novel of the same name. It is a skillful rendering of both a child’s straightforward view of things untampered by age or experience, and our own perceptions of the world that can allow the obvious to hide in plain sight.
The child is the eponymous Louis (Aiden Longworth), Lou-Lou to his adoring and fragile mother, Natalie (Sarah Gadon). He is a precocious nine-year-old with an unsettling set of rules and an obsession with the ocean. Louis tells us in a fanciful introduction that he is a child prone to accidents, including his own birth by Caesarian that preceded bouts of food poisoning, electrocution, falling chandeliers, bee stings, and, as the film opens, a tumble from a very tall cliff into the very ocean with which he is so smitten. What exactly happened just before that unexpected flight is the subtext to everything that will follow, starting with the police trying to locate Louis’ father, Peter (Aaron Paul), through the retelling of the weeks leading up to Louis’ latest accident, and the subsequent budding romance as Louis lies in a coma between Natalie and Louis’ doctor, Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), an unhappily married man with a need for treating children in comas that may be a result of his own unresolved issues that led to bouts of sleepwalking as a child.
What is real and what is Louis’ imagination is never made quite clear, and it is that delicious sense of the fantastical that propels the film as its tone evolves from playful to astringent. It is the power of Minghella and Aja that we can see what we want to see in any given situation, be it because of empathy or preconceived notions about what an ex-boxer must be like when asked by his wife to give up the ring, or the veracity of an mother-in-law (Barbara Hershey) distraught over a missing son and a comatose grandson. Then there is the tantalizing question of why Pascal dreams of a trail of mud, kelp, and crabs strewn by the creature that sprang from Louis’ imagination and that keeps his still active mind company.
The tension between things such as Natalie’s grief while also being aetherially beautiful, even alluring, in her sadness, or Peter’s aching tenderness with Louis that is so at odds with his vitriol when he screams at Natalie, make for a film that has the intensity of a thriller with a visceral emotional pull that is more and more wrenching as the capacity for love is examined, and the consequence of same are revealed.
Longworth amazes. His precocity is palpable, as is his ability to subtly take charge of Louis’ therapy sessions with his psychiatrist (Oliver Platt), a rotund man perplexed, yet charmed, by his patient as he attempts to uncover what it is that makes the boy tick, and tick with such equanimity about his own oddness. There is not a trace of self-consciousness in a performance that is both complex and assured. It is the pivotal grounding for the equally complex turn by Gadon, who is the perfect incarnation of a childlike innocence that begs to be cherished. It’s effect underscored by the glowing light, flowing like an aura around her and Dornan, emphasizing the magical realism with which his film is replete, but not overwhelmed.
THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX ably considers the resonant interplay between things that cannot possible be and things that should never be. This is sumptuous film that is at once melancholy, devastating, and triumphant.