Julie Roy (Laure Calamy) is a divorced mother of two who makes ends meet by working in a five-star hotel. Every morning, she commutes from her suburban home to Paris, where she cleans the rooms of spoiled, entitled guests. Her ex-husband is late on alimony, her mortgage is past due, and she’s scrambling to organize a birthday party for her youngest, Nolan (Nolan Arizmendi). She also has an upcoming interview for a better-paying office job that will alleviate some of her fears about money.
Sounds like the plot of a standard working-class drama, or maybe even a comedy. However, writer-director Éric Gravel has different plans for “Full Time.” In his capable hands, Julie’s mundane existence becomes a ruthless, white-knuckled thriller. From the opening credits to its last shot barely 90 minutes later, the film never eases up on its intensity. Fans of relentless rollercoaster rides like 2019′s “Uncut Gems” and 1998′s “Run Lola Run” will find much to enjoy here.
The biggest wrench in Julie’s plans is an impending transit strike. The workers are protesting longer hours. Soon, there will be uprisings in the Parisian streets and a complete shutdown of trains and their replacement buses, stranding any commuter unlucky enough to lack a car. The sudden changes repeatedly throw Julie’s schedule off, making her late for work and to pick up her kids from her elderly neighbor and babysitter Madame Lusigny(Geneviève Mnich).
The transit strike also affects her sneaking out of the hotel to do that job interview. Normally, an interview scene involving a character we’re rooting for is suspenseful enough. “Full Time” has poor, frazzled Julie constantly running down the street trying to beat an unforgiving clock. Though she makes it to the interview on time, the scene is shot in uncomfortable close-ups and feels like a parole hearing; the employer interrogates Julie about every aspect of her CV.
More troubles pile on. When she’s not leaving messages for her unresponsive ex, Alex (Guillaume Vincent), Julie deals with the bank calling about her possible eviction. Mme. Lusigny is fast becoming tired of keeping Nolan and his older sister Chloé (Sasha Lemaitre Cremaschi) past dinnertime. Julie’s boss, Sylvie (Anne Suarez) suspects she’s up to something.
And then there’s that birthday party, which Julie tries to plan without letting her kids know just how worried she is about everything. When we discover she’s ordered a trampoline as part of the day’s fun and games, the knots “Full Time” has tied in our stomachs tighten.
Even the rare moment of respite is tinged with worry. A subplot involving Vincent (Cyril Gueï), a friendly neighbor who gives Julie a ride into town and later helps her out with some home repairs, unfolds innocently enough. But we’re so conditioned to expect the worst that a sense of unease remains present.
Gravel has some excellent co-conspirators to help him shoot his diabolical screenplay. Cinematographer Victor Seguin keeps the frame tightly packed, finding a neo-noir aesthetic in the seemingly endless rain dousing Paris. Editor Mathilde Van de Moortel paces the film at breakneck speed, cutting in time with the unnerving score by Irène Drésel. Gravel, de Moortell, and Drésel are all currently nominated for César awards (the French Oscars), and deservingly so.
Also up for a César is Calamy, who imbues Julie with unforgettable tenacity. If she is to be defeated by all that “Full Time” throws at her, she will go down kicking, screaming, and clawing with every last ounce of strength she has. It’s a fine, fierce performance that honors, without a trace of sentimentality, all the things parents will do for their kids.
“Full Time” does a very good job of showing how difficult it can be for working-class people to comfortably earn a living. By casting Julie’s journey in a thriller mold, the film makes us feel her anxiety, even when the current problem to be solved is something as minor as finding the right invitation cards for a kid’s birthday party.
Written and directed by Éric Gravel. Starring Laure Calamy, Geneviève Mnich, Cyril Gueï, Anne Suarez , Nolan Arizmendi, Sasha Lemaitre Cremaschi, Guillaume Vincent. In French, with English subtitles. At Coolidge Corner Theatre. 88 minutes. Unrated (profanity, intense situations)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.