I went to the TIFF Bell Lightbox last night to see Belgium’s submission for the best foreign film Academy Award, The Broken Circle Breakdown, and came away duly impressed. I’m not sure it’s a truly great movie, but it’s certainly unique and extremely well made. The setting is an odd one: we’re in Belgium, in a rural area outside of Ghent, but we might as well be in the American south. The protagonists, a rough-around-the-edges bohemian couple, are devotees of bluegrass—they perform together in a band—and they seem to have modeled their lives on the American rural ideal: they live in a trailer, drive a pickup, host raucous kitchen parties, sing high-lonesome songs. When they sing, they switch from Dutch to twangy Southern American accents, which takes some getting used to. Part of the appeal of the movie is that it’s studded with superb bluegrass numbers; over the course of the picture, the band—which I don’t think we ever learn the name of—grows in stature and popularity, so the performances gradually shift from small dive bars to large concert halls. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), who looks like a big, hulking combo of Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, sings and plays banjo, while the heavily tattooed Elise (Veerle Baetens) sings and plays rhythm guitar. The group is rounded out by a bunch of good-time guys playing the usual assortment of instruments: fiddle, mandolin, Dobro, and double bass. One of the band’s signature tunes is alluded to in the film’s title: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” popularized in the 1920s and ’30s by the iconic Carter Family. I should probably explain that the film is far—very, very far—from a jolly jamboree. If anything, the soul-stirring songs function as counterpoint to the increasingly bleak story. The fragmented narrative jumps back and forth between Didier and Elise’s early courtship and their unhappy present, in which their only daughter, Maybelle, slowly succumbs to an unspecified but highly aggressive form of cancer. You could accuse the movie of exploiting the looming death of a child for cheap emotional impact, but that wouldn’t be fair or accurate. As rough as things get for Didier and Elise—and hoo-boy do they get rough—Heldenbergh, who wrote the script, and director Felix Van Groeningen don’t simply coast on melodrama. They make an honest effort to illuminate the whole happy-sad nature of life, to show how two people navigate (or fail to navigate) the jarring currents of joy and heartbreak that sweep over us all. Mercifully, the movie takes a glancing approach to all this: instead of wallowing in either emotion, it moves at a fast clip and focuses more on the tonal shifts. Accordingly, it isn’t always a deep film—it tends to glide along on the surface of things. That’s not a criticism as much as it is an observation. In a lot of ways, the movie functions more like a country song—the kind of simple, high-lonesome song that speaks in generalities but seems to express something elemental and true about life. When the movie ends, you carry it out of the theatre with you, like a melody you can hum.