The weather outside is frightful, and the weather inside is no different. It’s Christmas Eve, 1983, in a small village in Bas-Saint-Laurent, Quebec. A man, Denis, waits anxiously in his car outside the guest-filled home of his ex-wife, where he’s come to pick up his two small children. It’s the house where he celebrated the past several Christmases, with what up until recently had been his family, too. They’re the ones in the title of the film: “Like the Ones I Used to Know.”
Everybody’s waiting on Santa, who’s late. Denis’s ex-wife, Christiane, wonders if perhaps the sleigh went up too high. All the kids, having plied themselves with sugary treats, are on a high of their own. Suddenly, the doorbell rings, and people rush to the vestibule. There’s a palpable disappointment when they find it’s not Santa, only Denis, who’s mustered the courage to come to the door. He’s ready to take his son and daughter to his house, but Christiane tells him they haven’t done presents yet. They go to get ready anyway, crestfallen, and Denis reluctantly accepts an invitation from his ex-sister-in-law Lisette to come inside.
The tense festivities are inspired by the life of the film’s director, Annie St-Pierre. The family in the film isn’t unwelcoming, exactly. “They just can’t understand,” St-Pierre said. “It’s the first divorce of someone in their group.” She saw similarly complex holidays as a child—her parents divorced when she was two and her sister was three and a half, and she experienced how that colored big family Christmases. The film, set in the early nineteen-eighties, also captures a particular moment in the culture of families, and family law. A period of political and societal shifts known as the Quiet Revolution had recently brought liberal change to Quebec, and loosened the Catholic Church’s influence there. Partly as a result, divorce became more common, though at the time it was only just beginning to show itself in the province’s smaller hamlets. The film imagines how one family responds to a societal change that becomes deeply personal. The scene, St-Pierre said, could be taking place “in any village or small town of the Quebec countryside” during those years, a period she called “the golden age of experimental-type shared custody—those awkward arrangements of ‘Oh, let’s just try to split Christmas in two.’ ”
Some guests make conversation with Denis and get him a beer. Denis meets his ex’s new partner, who is apparently younger, more built, with a full head of hair. Lisette asks Denis to play piano for them, as he used to do. Christiane’s partner says that he could never sing in front of everyone, which prompts Denis to do just that: “White Christmas,” at Lisette’s request. Everything seems to be settling in, but some nerves remain. “Is the piano in tune?” someone asks, of an electric Casio.
Then the perspective shifts from Denis to his daughter. She realizes that her father, wishing not to take his children away from the party, has sneaked out of the house. In that moment, we witness her grow up a little, however slightly, however silently. “There’s always a moment when you are a child when you can see the vulnerability of your parents” for the first time, St-Pierre said, a moment that marks the end of one phase of childhood and the start of another. The reward of the film is not a perfect family holiday but a small moment of change.