There are no superpowers in Phantom Boy, only out-of-body experiences. Leo (Gaspard Gagnol) has them regularly, secretly exiting his physical self to help others in need as an invisible entity with keen detective skills. The cancer currently ravaging his body makes these departures a necessary and exciting distraction for a child with a sensitive appreciation for death's inevitability.
In the early moments of Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol's stylized animated film, Leo prepares to leave for an extended stay at the hospital. First he reads his younger sister a noir-infused bedtime story that would have made Raymond Chandler proud. While the two children enjoy the diversion, their parents are fighting to hold back tears for having to face an uncertain future.
Phantom Boy refuses to dwell on the potential tragedy of its setup. Instead, it dives headfirst into a pulpy New York story of gritty cops, fedora-wearing brutes and scrappy beat reporters trying to uncover the truth. Spiral staircases, venetian blinds and shadowy avenues abound, indebting the film to a classic hardboiled genre where fate is a fickle beast.
As Leo prepares to receive another debilitating round of chemotherapy, a rule-breaking detective named Alex (Edouard Baer) stumbles upon a plot to cripple the city's infrastructure with a computer virus. The Man with the Broken Face (Jean-Pierre Marielle), a supervillain ripped from a Pablo Picasso canvas, is behind the threat.
Nearly killed in the ensuing struggle, Alex ends up in the same hospital as Leo, rendered immobile and frustrated by a broken leg. With the world at large crumbling under a wave of fear generated by The Man with the Broken Face, the two begin using Leo's phantom abilities to thwart the cyber attack.
Felicioli and Gagnol have a lot of fun with references to Manhattan and Gremlins, not to mention the classic noir visuals found in the best of Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak and many more. The dialogue is snappy as well—at one point Alex's angry superior calls him "a cactus shirt I squeeze into every morning." Despite being in French, the script is salty and sassy enough to feel all American.
If Phantom Boy pleases the knowledgeable filmgoer with well-constructed pastiche and charm, it also manages to provide a thoughtful and moving portrait of adolescent anxiety and trauma filtered through genre. The archetypes and detective film conventions Leo gets to experience help further inform his values as a budding professional, but they also present him with disturbing realities about death and fate. The adult world and its criminal underbelly aren't pretty, but the inside of a cancer ward is in many ways far more horrifying.
Leo's unnerving ability to dance between reality and waking life gives the film a metaphysical tone, yet it's riddled with comedic bits that lighten the mood. Despite his best efforts, The Man with the Broken Face's attempts to mansplain his tragic backstory are consistently interrupted. His complete picture of revenge never truly comes into focus, a victory of sorts for fans of clever genre revisionism. It's also worth noting that the only character to match Leo's resilience is the villain's tenacious terrier that values loyalty over all else.
Opening on Friday, July 29, Phantom Boy explores the complexities of heroism in unique ways. The efforts made by Leo, Alex and a brave reporter (Audrey Tatou) help clarify a thematic crossroads that we all inevitably face. Do you take control of the story or let the story control you? That's a conflict most filmmakers have to face as well, and Felicioli and Gagnol imbue their twisty narrative with multiple courses of action.
Ultimately, origin stories only get you so far, the details of which seem generic and trite. How you act in the present directly reflects what kind of future you think is worth fighting for, diagnosis be damned.