Growing up Being Strong

in 74th Cannes Film Festival

by Pamela Jahn

Growing up has never been easy – both on camera and off. It’s that constant struggle with the self and the world that we can all relate to so well that has made the hazardous and stormy passage from childhood to maturity such an endless well of inspiration for filmmakers since the early days of cinema. However, looking at the films selected for the Un Certain Regard strand of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is seems that finding one’s voice and calling in life at a young age has never been harder than today.

Out of the many films that featured kids and young people as their major theme, the most impressive work on offer was Playground (Un monde, 2021) which took home the FIPRESCI prize for Un Certain Regard for its intense and deeply affecting depiction of bullying at school. Filmed quite literally from the child’s perspective, Laura Wandel’s first feature revolves around seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) as she navigates herself through her first year at primary school, including all the difficulties involved from learning how to write, read, or swim to the huge challenges of the playground and the need to fit in and make friends. Until now, there was always her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) that she could rely on. But as Nora soon finds out, he has its own battles to fight in the schoolyard, and does not want his little sister to interfere. Torn between fraternal compassion and her desire to be accepted by the other students in her class, Nora tries to figure out what’s best to do and grows increasingly worried as things for Abel get worse.

At first glance, what is most admirable about Playground is the first-time writer-director’s approach to stay at eye level with her heroine from beginning to end, to offer a decidedly realistic take on what’s happening when kids go to school each day – above all, this is a poignant tale of friendship and hate, where children are as curious, caring, and empathetic as they are cruel, violent, and selfish. But beyond its fragile surface Playground is also a film about empowering children to love deeply, think critically, and act responsibly – and it’s here where Playground emerges as a truly mature piece of filmmaking. It all works so well because the performances, none more so than Vanderbeque in the central role. The confusion, frustration, anxiety, and emotional pressure she is exposed to every second along the way are etched in her eyes and countenance throughout.

Even darker and more brutal, if also more conventional in its genre setting, was the horror/thriller The Innocents by Eskil Vogt, who co-wrote this year’s Competition title The Worst Person in the Word by Joachim Trier and has been a long-time collaborator of the Norwegian director. Vogt tells the story of two sisters, Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), who also need to make new friends as their family moves to a different home. As they start to investigate their new surroundings, they both find new playmates easily; even though Anna is autistic and doesn’t speak, she begins to communicate telepathically with another girl. Ida’s new companion equally seems to have higher powers, but some that he uses to increasingly dangerous and fatal effect. Interestingly, The Innocents, as well as Playground, both recall moments and emotions of Let the Right One In (2008) – if for entirely different reasons. But Vogt and Wandel also manage to breathe enough of their own ideas, narrative skill, and stylistic choices into their films to make them feel distinct and disturbing in their own right.

In contrast, Yohan Manca’s directorial debut La Traviata, My Brothers & I (Mes Frères et Moi, 2021) turned out to be one of the most sympathetic and delightful entries in this year’s selection. The film centers on Nour (Maël Rouin-Berrandou), who at fourteen is the youngest of four brothers growing up in a housing project in the South of France. School has just finished for the summer holidays but Nour is busy doing community service, running shady errands for his siblings, and taking care of their ailing mother, who has been in a coma for some time. Part of Nour’s contribution to look after her is to play her Pavarotti because his father used to sing opera to her when they first met. But it doesn’t take long until he stumbles into a choir-singing class and develops a passion for the music himself. Carried along by strong performances from Rouin-Berrandou and Judith Chemla (as the encouraging singing teacher who helps Nour find his voice), the film openly declares its references to the great Italian cinema of the 1960 and 1970s, mixed with British kitchen sink realism and family crowd pleasers a la Billy Elliot (2000), to create a bittersweet drama that is as tender and heart-warming as it is impulsive and moving.

Other films in the Un Certain Regard section that focused on coming-of-age stories also engaged specifically in the complex conversation about young women around the globe trying to find agency in their own lives. The Grand Prix winner Unclenching the Fists (Razzhimaya Kulaki, 2021) impressed the jury in this regard with its dark slice of neorealism and a palpable sense of claustrophobia that Ada (played by newcomer Milana Aguzarova) feels in her life in the North Caucasus region and, in particular, within her family of two brothers and a strict, controlling and unforgiving father. Tatiana Huezo’s first fiction feature Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de Fuego, 2021), on the other hand, received a Special Mention from the jury and prolonged applause from the audience for its gripping and tangible depiction of friendship between three female teenagers set against the violent backdrop of Mexico’s cartel-based conflict and its plight of «disappeared» children.

In fact, there was another thrilling first feature set in Northern Mexico that dealt with the same problem but, this time, told from the mother’s point of view as she sets off on a relentless and increasingly dangerous investigation into her teenage daughter’s disappearance. Directed by Teodora Ana Mihai and carried almost entirely on the shoulders of Mexican actress Arcelia Ramirez in the lead role, La Civil (2021) is based on the real-life case of Miriam Rodríguez Martínez, who was murdered at her home after revealing evidence about the men who kidnapped her child. But even if the perspective here shifts to the mother (with Laura, her beloved daughter, being absent for most of the running time of this slow-paced yet incredibly strong and effective drama), the Romanian-born director always keeps a notion of the missing girl – and all the other still-open kidnapping cases in the country – at the very heart of her film. In a similar vein, Women Do Cry (2021) by Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova stands representative for a whole community of young women in Bulgaria who grow up to live in a misogynistic society confined by patriarchy and toxic masculinity. This multi-layered, witty, and provocative drama about 19-year-old Sonja (Oscar-nominated Maria Bakalova), who after being tested HIV positive must navigate a new way forward for herself, offers them a perspective to look at things differently.

In the end, what remains of this year’s Un Certain Regard strand, which had so many incredibly powerful, bold and brave films on offer, is a feeling of hope and excitement – not only for cinema to come out of this pandemic so much stronger than one could have imagined, but for a new generation of inspiring, talented filmmakers that put young people and their issues at the very center of their quest: to find a unique and compelling cinematic language that visually and emotionally embodies what it really means to grow up in the world today.

Pamela Jahn
Edited by Robert Horton