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Film Fest 919 Day 2: Celine Sciamma's 'Petite Maman' & Josef Wladyka's 'Catch the Fair One'

From the gentle and bittersweet to the gritty and bleak, day 2 of Film Fest 919 was a day of contrasts. View more Film Fest 919 coverage

Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman (Madman Films)

Céline Sciamma stole cinephiles' hearts with her 2019 feature, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a tale of romantic love set in the 18th century. The hallmarks of her craft include expertly crafted shots and spare but effective use of music. Her passion seems to be showing the nuances of all kinds of relationships. In Petite Maman, she turns her attention towards the love of families -- mothers and daughters and mothers and grandmothers, particularly. 

After the death of her maternal grandmother, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) accompanies her mother, Marion, (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to Marion's childhood home so that they can sort through the family belongings. Nelly misses her grandmother but appreciates the rare opportunity to spend dedicated time with her mother, who seems to be emotionally absent much of the time. Marion remarks, "You always have so many questions at night." "That's when I see you," Nelly replies, a sentiment that hints at the isolation she often feels from her mother.

As Marion sorts through her childhood things, Nelly begins to ask questions. She's particularly interested in the hut, a play fort that Marion built as a child, that may still be standing in the woods behind the house. Nelly seeks out the hut and finds a little girl that looks almost identical to her (Gabrielle Sanz). Through some unexplained magic, the girl turns out to be her mother at age eight. And the hut and grounds surrounding the house serve as a portal between times periods. Without the barriers of age, Marion and Nelly occupy themselves with the games that children play and explore this new type of connection.

Nelly desires uninterrupted time with her mother and the chance to say goodbye to grandmother. Through her adventure across time, she receives all, but not in the way she anticipates. This low fantasy never tries to answer how these things came to be or even if what Nelly is seeing is true or imaginary. None of that matters.

Sciamma takes on innocence, attachment, abandonment, and mental health in a subtle and non-invasive way. This gentle story caught me by surprise with its emotional power. There are times in life when the people we love most, like parents, can't show up for us as we would want. When this happens, we often internalize the pain and think it's about us. Petite Maman addresses these tender feelings without being too on the nose. Nelly's story is one of healing, forgiveness, and understanding.

4 out of 5

Josef Kubota Wladyka's 'Catch the Fair One' (IFC, Protozoa Pictures)


If gentle is not your game, try Catch the Fair One, directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka, with a script co-written by Wladyka and the film's breakout star, Kali K.O. Reis. The film tackles human trafficking, focusing on the many North American Indigenous women that go missing each year.

Kaylee (Reis) is a washed-out boxer whose life took a bad turn after her younger sister Weeta went missing. Now she works as a waitress and lives at a homeless shelter. Though everyone seems to have given up the hunt, Kaylee still hopes she can find her sister and help her family to heal. When her trainer and friend Brick (Shelly Vincent) connects her with a private investigator who claims he may be able to help her find the people who stole Weeta, Kaylee prepares for the fight of her life. In order to fight, she will need to enter the trafficking ring herself as a willing participant, with no guarantees she can accomplish the task.

In the tradition of Winter's Bone and Frozen River, Catch the Fair One is a rural noir, with a strong female lead. In these films, the characters must navigate the local laws of the land, unprotected by the normal protections of society. Female characters encounter more barriers that average. For Kaylee, the barriers present as barricades. She's a biracial, two-spirit, Native North American ex-boxer. No one takes her seriously. Her tattooed, hard-bodied appearance draws fascination and derision simultaneously.

To find her sister, she needs to debase herself completely and follow the path of disenfranchised women. But her spirit as a fighter makes the journey especially horrendous. Kali sizzles on screen and viewers will root for her, even as they want to shut their eyes throughout her harrowing ordeal.

The visual storytelling is a highlight for me, with colors, motifs, and imagery that will linger in the mind after the credits roll.

4.5 out of 5