Vincent René-Lortie “Invincible” paints a moving picture of teenage mental health

WordsJoe Zadeh

In 2008, filmmaker Vincent René-Lortie’s close friend, Marc-Antoine Bernier, fled a juvenile detention center, stole a car and crashed it into a river, ending his life. The entire ordeal had a profound impact on the local community and on René-Lortie himself, and he’s since dedicated his debut narrative film—“Invincible”—to Bernier and his story. The film tells a beautiful, tragic story of one boy’s search for freedom, and paints a moving picture of the fragility of teenage mental health. René-Lortie tells Joe Zadeh about the process of making of the film, and how much it meant to him to involve Bernier’s family in it from start to finish.

A teenage boy sits in the driver’s seat of a parked car: eyes closed, breath frantic, beads of sweat running across his skin. The dipping sun on the horizon casts golden light on his chest and dark shadows across his face. A woman’s voice calls out from the phone in his lap, pleading for his attention, but he ignores it. As the siren sounds and flashing lights of police cars approach from behind, he puts his foot on the accelerator and speeds into the abyss.

This is the gripping opening scene of Canadian film director Vincent René-Lortie’s short film, “Invincible” (2022), which won the Prix Iris for Best Live Action Short Film at the 25th Quebec Cinema Awards last year and was nominated for Best Live Action Short Film at this year’s Oscars. Based on a true story, it depicts the final days in the life of 14-year-old boy Marc-Antoine Bernier. In a bold move it begins at the end—with Bernier’s final moments—then dedicates the rest of its uncomfortable yet electrifying runtime of 30 minutes to revealing who he was and how he ended up in that car on that sunlit evening.

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Born in Quebec and raised in a French-Canadian household, René-Lortie learned his craft at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema in Montreal and made his name as the director of critically-acclaimed music videos and experimental films. When it came to making his first narrative drama, he wanted it to be something deeply personal and decided to revisit an unresolved tragedy from his past. 

In 2008, René-Lortie’s close friend, Bernier, fled a juvenile detention center, stole a car and crashed it into a river, ending his life. “I was the same age as Marc-Antoine [Bernier] when this happened, and I was very affected by it,” says René-Lortie. “It affected our whole community. And it also raised a lot of questions. The person I remember was filled with so much joy and love, with the fire of life—I just couldn’t understand how it happened. Why did he steal a car? Why was there a police chase through the streets? Why did he end up in the river? At that age, you just can’t understand an event like that.”

René-Lortie began a years-long period of research that would see him interview everyone that orbited Bernier’s life, from the staff at Bernier’s detention center to his family. But before any of that, he spoke to the family. “I met with his father, and one of the first things he told me was that he believed there was a chance that it could have been suicide, rather than an accident,” says René-Lortie. “When he said that, it was a huge slap in the face. I’d always seen [Bernier] as a rebellious kid who just wanted independence, to be himself, and didn’t like being told what to do. I never thought he might be in a bad place mentally, that he might feel like he was suffocating and needed help. I realized there was so much I didn’t understand about him.”

The film has a powerful visual language that constantly dictates the mood, and brings to the fore the central theme of a tussle between freedom and captivity. Indoor scenes are almost silent in sound and depicted in dark, shadowy blue-grey tones; while outdoor shots are spacious and glimmer with warm natural light and clear air. René-Lortie and his cinematographer Alexandre Nour-Desjardins decided to shoot everything in a 4:3 aspect ratio to create this paradoxical blend of intimacy and entrapment. 

“We worked for a long time on understanding what the visual style would be,” says René-Lortie. “We chose very stable shots, filmed mostly on a tripod, with a fixed camera close to the actors’ faces. We wanted to see the world through the eyes of the main character—4:3 can feel like you’re in a cage. It also makes the audience feel it–the faces are so close on the screen that when you see it in the cinema it’s quite uncomfortable.”

Throughout, “Invincible” walks a careful line between fact and fiction. “This was a film, not a documentary, and that’s an important distinction,” René-Lortie says, “but I still wanted the people on set to feel as close to the reality of what happened as possible.” The scenes inside the detention center, for example, were shot in the Montreal center where Bernier was actually held. “Same with the driving scene at the end with the sun on the horizon,” René-Lortie adds. “That’s the actual road where that happened.”

Central to the film is the charged performance of Léokim Beaumier-Lépine, the 18-year-old actor who played Bernier. The emotional scales he manages to deliver in single scenes is captivating—from wild snarls to broken tenderness to blank looks of utter vacancy that make it seem like he’s no longer there at all. “I’ve worked with kids in the past on youth projects, and I prefer working with non-actors,” explained René-Lortie. “Léokim came to audition two months after we’d started casting, and he’d never acted before. As soon as he started I knew it would be him. He was so close to his emotions; he could understand the story in his own way.”

From that first meeting when he began the research, to the writing of the script, René-Lortie consulted with Bernier’s family on every step of the process. “It was a collaboration,” he said. “I also made sure they were the first people to watch the film. Their reaction was very emotional and beautiful. I don’t want to put words in their mouths, but I think they felt it was a great tribute to their son and my friend. After that came the Oscars and the film festivals, but the most incredible moment in the whole making of that film for me was showing it to them at their place. I would never change that moment.”