Whether one interprets Celine Sciamma's latest film as grounded science fiction time travel fantasy or something much more innately interior, it's still a powerful film of simplicity and genuine heart. Working with child actors can be dicey, but in Sciamma's capable hands, "Petite Maman" quickly melts any precocious waves in the very beginning as young Nelly (Josephine Sanz) wanders around the assisted living home where her grandmother has just died and sweetly says goodbye to everyone. From there, Nelly holes up in the dead woman's house as her mother (Nina Meurisse) initially tries to deal with the loss by packing, but subsequently disappears and leaves young Nelly to fend for herself and interpret her swirling emotions with her father (Stephane Vrupenne) who probably understands even less. Within this tepid space of loss and confusion, Nelly stumbles upon a girl playing in the woods (played by real life sister Gabrielle Sanz) whom she soon comes to realize is her mother at that age. The joy of "Petite Maman" doesn't require the viewer to be dazzled by its metaphysical conceit. Sciamma wants us to feel and experience (as she has in so many of her exquisite films) loss, death, wonder and adolescence in equal measures, and in its compact running time, the film magically does so. And there's a needle drop towards the end of this thing that just took my breath away. One of the year's best films.
Audrey Diwan's "Happening" follows- in rigorous attention- a young girl's (Anamaria Vartolomei) attempt to seek an abortion in 1960's France. We never see the sexual encounter that leads to young Anne's desperate search, which makes the film all the more compelling. "Happening" isn't concerned about the fleeting pleasures of lust or the act of sexual experiences, but with the hard and immovable barriers placed around women in a not-so-distant supposedly progressive society. As Anne, Vartolomei is superb and Diwan's control over the mood and tone of Annie Ernaux's source material doesn't make for easy viewing, but in the light of recent backwards events here in our present, it makes "Happening" all the more urgent.
Filmmakers David Siegel and Scott McGehee have a varied career. Starting in the early 90's with the no budget body invasion "Suture", helming the eerily unnerving thriller "The Deep End" with Tilda Swinton in the early aughts and then working sporadically during the last decade, nothing really points to the majestic crescendo that "Montana Story" fills the viewer with. Not that they're bad filmmakers, but their latest is so full of subtle life and overwhelming vistas that it doesn't quite gel with any of the quirky, hard-scrabbled indies they've created in the past. I'm sure having Hayley Lu Richardson as your co-lead helps as well. A boiling family drama played out against the windswept beauties of the Montana mountain range, "Montana Story" looks at the curdled relationship between a sister (Richardson) and brother (Owen Teague in a role as equally good) dealing with the traumas of their past over the deathbed of their dying father. Yes, the set-up sounds familiar and the type of slowly simmering fireworks display that's launched a thousand indies, but "Montana Story" is different. Siegel and McGehee have painted their film with vivid supporting performances- especially that of hospice aid Gilbert Owuor)- and poignantly sketched secondary characters- like that of Eugene Brave Rock- that the film takes on an unrehearsed sense of acceptance and gravity. And when the emotional pay off comes between brother and sister, "Montana Story" burns with a pithy truth, and its then released in a heartbreakingly sweeping image of true freedom for everyone (and animals) involved.