Little Girl (Petite Fille) – Ed Film Fest at Home

Directed & Written by Sébastien Lifshitz

France / 2020 / 90 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A majority of French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz’s library seeks to promote marginalised communities, often featuring queer experiences from France or surrounding Europe. Noted for his exceptionally delicate touch, a phantom presence where the filming itself doesn’t intrude on an authentic experience, Little Girl is no different. The film looks towards the future for young Sasha, who identifies herself from an early age as a girl, not the male body she was born in, and the struggles she and her mother face in convincing schools, friends and Sasha herself about the basic necessity of respecting who she is, and how to move forward. 

Having barely turned three, Sasha recognised something within herself – she wasn’t the boy she was born to be, but rather the girl she felt she was, trapped. When turning four, her mother Karine told her that her desires to grow up into a girl were outwith certainty. The impact was devastating, and Karine openly admits the words she spoke had likely destroyed Sasha’s life had she not reflected and grown. Without prejudice, as Sasha turns seven, both of her parents have opened their minds and are champions of Sasha’s dreams of growing up as a girl. Still understandably distraught at how she hurt her daughter, even if inadvertently, Karine is more determined than ever to pursue an understanding of gender dysphoria, and the realisation of the inevitable struggles Sasha will endure, even from such an early age.

Recognising the tenderness of Sasha’s story, the documentary rightfully allows for prolonged periods of silence. We connect with Sasha in these instances, and they’re dispersed at intermittent intervals following revelations or life events which solidify the audience’s investment. Following psychiatric and medical advice, the most significant impact is a moment many wouldn’t consider in the prospect of a transition for someone so young, the development of puberty and the hormonal battleground between the medication and questions surrounding potential children, fertility or sexual development. The frankness with which Little Girl addresses these is commendable, allowing academics and experts an unimpeded chance to explain. 

And as this is Sasha’s story, Lifshitz’s cinematography emulates this, framed almost entirely from her level, looking up or cutting off that which a young child wouldn’t see. It’s thoroughly personal, drawing the audience into the young girl’s stance in the world, fighting against everything bigger than her – both mentally and literally. Filmed in a gorgeous, wide-shot aspect, Sasha is frequently front and centre, the prima of her own little story. Lifshitz has a soft approach to the filmmaking process, deferring from imposing an impression or message, instead just relaying Sasha’s story.

It helps, as Little Girl never asks those who struggle with the concept of transgender or gender dysmorphia to confront their prejudices or misunderstanding. There is no diminishing, which is fundamentally an impressive holdback on Lifshitz’s part, and the way forward to open the conversation. Lifshitz wants to put across Sasha’s story, and her journey from the mundane to the extraordinary – though even her ‘mundane’ is picking clothes or favourite colours. In particular, a touching callback comes after Sasha has shown a distaste for blue, a gender-specified colour for boys, when the film ends on a shot of her in a soft blue, as she grows more comfortable in herself.

Inherently, Little Girl has no genuine filmmaking flaws other than a short runtime, and an abrupt ending. Its decision to detach itself from statements or morality and follow Sasha’s story as it plays out results in a pure, innocent piece of observational film which achieves the trust of a young girl facing down a pragmatic future, with the strength of character to fight against, and hopefully triumph over, all obstacles.

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Directed by Justin Pemberton

Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

New Zealand/ 2019/ 103 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We’re halfway through 2020, a peculiar pandemic year which hosts a variety of elections, consequences, narcissistic reaches, and exposure of the toxic systems in place in a way which bathes inequalities – particularly economic – in a floodlight. As the first generation projected to earn less than their parents since the second world war, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century encompasses everything you claimed to know on Twitter into a malleable chunk of text. Now, Justin Pemberton has re-parcelled Piketty’s book into a documentary which shows how the world has been shaped, and that how if we fail to strike a balance we are, in the politest way possible, screwed.

From French 18th century aristocracy, to the English gentry’s modern-day reproduction of wealth into the UK’s 1%, and the inherited privilege of the “rich kids” of Asia or the US, Pemberton plunges into the depths of commerce, and how capital(ism) has donned various visages over the decades. But it equally recognises the naivety of revolution or forced change and the necessity for organised institutions of education, business and yes, even government. Remarkably, in an era of cancel culture and the tantalising ease of drawing in a radical crowd, hungry to tear down a faceless giant of multinational conglomerations, Capital in the Twenty-First Century tries to present history. The fact is, as much as some regret to admit, the system is flawed, but not quite as those who circumvent it to their selfish gains.

Less a procedural expansion, more an entry point into the powerhouse, influential book, this documentary supplement to the mammoth literary counterpart condenses the source material, and offers ease of access to a wider range for those curious about the behemoth that is capitalism’s secrets. For those who prefer side-cuts and cultural references to embellish their exposition, enter director Justin Pemberton who portions the timescale into landmark film examples. From an explanation of the reality of capital’s foundations in landownership and commerce, and our acceptance of this using Pride & Prejudice, to a wider analogy with Elysium or A Tale of Two Cities, or a trivialisation, such as the French Revolution’s (attempted) abolishment of the aristocracy being boiled down to Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables.

Stepping beyond the works of Austen, much of Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s ease of access is down to its aesthetic structure, with both academics who are not only well versed in their respective fields but equally capable on camera, and enjoyable bite-sized chunks of animation and graphics. With on the nose introductions to the film with Lorde’s ‘Royals’, Pemberton again infuses the importance of cultural substances into how regularly changes or tactics in capitalism are imposed on a general populace.

Tying the knots together, albeit loosely, the documentary takes on an obvious form of narrative as we enter a present era. There’s a horrific harkening to the downtrodden who are vulnerable to the rise of fascism, racism or inward hatred of immigration similar, to the delusional influence of nationalism and prejudice in the spark of the second world war. Sound familiar yet? And while the empty, spiteful tones of Trump and Farage are only heard briefly, Pemberton designs the film in such a way as to allow the audience the grace of beating him to the punch.

Sadistically affable and engaging, though expectedly irksome, Pemberton finds no solution – but did we expect one? The answer to the world’s financial inequalities and wealth distribution will likely not come from the hands of filmmakers. But frustratingly, rather than questioning options or attempts, Capital in the Twenty-First Century’s focus lies squarely on the ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, yet isn’t keen on investigating the ‘what now?’. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

Pain & Glory – Pride Month Retrospective

Written & Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s growth all around “Pain & Glory” (2019), personal, universal, and out with the film itself, and while there is an overarching narrative, Pedro Almodóvar’s film is as equally about his self journey as it is Salvador Mallo’s back and forth throughout life. A story of pleasure, it is Almodóvar after all, this film accounts for the lost opportunities, the rekindled friendships and plunges back into life, rebutting the dark stupors of depression, isolation and a rejection of the self – all in favour to produce a methodical, grim film which seeks as much enjoyment it can from the struggles of life.  

A movie director who has, for one cause of another, refrained from making a film for years, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) balances his chronic back pain, regrets, and stifles of creativity with a growing need to re-connect and fix estranged relationships. Seeking out a previous actor from his hit film, which is due for a re-release and Q&A, Salvador locates Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), and the two rekindle their “friendships”. Salvador is encouraged to take up heroin as a means to dull his pain, both mentally and physically. The drug abuse, visions of the past and regrets drive him to return to a theatrical play he has written but wishes to claim no credit for, as its subject material lacerates too deep on his mind, triggering thoughts of the lost love who has since moved on, choosing addiction over companionship.

As the ‘true’ narrative unfolds, ripples of memories stir in Salvador’s life, as the ties he attempted to cut return. Echoes of his mother, marvellously captured by Penélope Cruz, and in her later life by Julieta Serrano as a fiery woman, family-focused and proud, there’s a fragility to Cruz’s gorgeous performance which ripples throughout the film, and despite never sharing the screen with Banderas, influences the impact of his performance exponentially.

These interactions, often ending grimly, never pleasantly, through death, rejection or addiction are what forge this connection between Salvador and the audience’s experiences. None more so than with Eduardo, or Frederic, the man whom ‘Addiction’, Salvador’s play was written about, and is now happily married to a woman. The microcosm of suffering, betraying Banderas’ face as he steals these briefs glimpses of happiness, set against all the wealth his career has promised, but delivered none of the gratifications, ties together the split-second clues and shots of Salvador as a young boy, with a lingering eye towards the older painter Eduardo. Sexuality is an undercurrent in ‘Pain & Glory’, but masterfully handled by Almodóvar is no cheap tactic, but a personal infusion.

And while Almodóvar is the evident maestro of the film, it wouldn’t be quite so effective without Antonio Banderas. We see the world, as brutal and gut-wrenchingly awful as it can be, through his eyes, and what a sight to behold, like the dawning realisation of beauty, beneath all of the anguish, flourishes.

It cannot be stated enough, those unaware of Almodóvar’s work will potentially be put off by the artistic integrity of the experience – to be blunt, “Pain & Glory” is structurally a piece of artistic expression, wrapped in a cinematographic garb. It’s an astonishingly touching, poignant piece which lends itself to a staggeringly slow pace. This isn’t a film for everyone, but it is cinema made for and about everyone. We have perhaps come closer to Almodóvar than ever before, stripped of the emotional facades while sacrificing none of the visual or cinematic aesthetics.  

It is scenes set in the past, the carved home of Salvador and his mother which demonstrate José Luis Alcaine’s utterly exquisite manipulation of the light. The white-washed walls gradually cleansing the moods of his family, as they grow together, concealing the ‘ugliness’ beneath. His direction of cinematography completes the trifecta of the Almodóvar triangle with Banderas, revitalising a multiple of steady, or lengthy shots, offering a visual splendour to soften the scene, or starkly, cast the mood in shadows as ill-fated decisions and feelings surface.

And here is where ‘Pain & Glory’ suffers, in its valiant attempts to remain a film, to deconstruct much of the narrative to offer accessibility – in doing so, rips a little of the power behind the premise. A personal preference for some, but understandably lacking, is the conceptual ‘pay-off’ of the flood of emotion as the tears cannot be held back. ‘Pain & Glory’, instead, feels robustly human in this sense. Denying the audience this melodramatic moment, and instead harkening back to reality, to bleakness and necessity.

Naked, raw, and bare as possible, “Pain & Glory” refrains from pander and weaves itself into the fabric of reality. It’s difficult not to immediately become engrossed into the profoundly vivid colours, like a memory on steroids. Often harrowing, frequently humorous, there is little doubt to the bleakness of Almodóvar’s most ‘honest’ film to date, but quite often in this endless darkness of self-loathing, abuse and hate, there is the smallest glimmer of hope, and this light is what the focus of “Pain & Glory” magnifies.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: