Virtue — and virtù — triumphs over vice in Eugène Green's wry if sometimes too whimsical reimagining of the Nativity story, set in a current-day Paris overrun with lit-world bobos, teenage internet entrepreneurs and other 21st-century vulgarians. High schooler Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), already roiling with adolescent rage, grows even more agitated after his saintly single mother, Marie (Natacha Régnier), tells him the sordid story of his biological father, whom the kid has never met. In the process of tracking down and plotting revenge on his deadbeat dad — an overweening book publisher named Oscar (Mathieu Amalric) — Vincent meets humble Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), Oscar's brother.
The new intergenerational pals stare raptly at Philippe de Champaigne's Le Christ Mort at the Louvre, just one of several Baroque masterpieces that are scrutinized in depth here. The art-history lessons typify Green's reverence of the past, obeisance that is further evident in the filmmaker's signature use of mannered, declaimed dialogue and other nods to classical French theater. As for the present, Oscar and his inane milieu are too easy a target, though Amalric enlivens episodes of limp satire by wholly embracing his unrepentantly self-serving, libertine character. Yet nothing buoys the occasionally claustrophobic Son of Joseph more than the radiant, freckled face of newcomer Ezenfis: Vincent may insist that "an angel" instructed him to set up his mother and Joseph, but the real love story is between the boy and his older friend.