My first feature proper at the LA Film Festival was a rather nice if safe trip back to 1970s Paris: Stella is eleven years old and starting a new term at a new, posh school. How she got there we do not know – her parents run a café and boarding house for welfare cases and cheerful lowlifes – and she is out of her depth socially and academically: she has no friends and no interest in or understanding of her schoolwork, though she can beat the café patrons at cards and knows all about football. Gradually, however, friendship grows with a round little redhead, Gladys, top of the class, and Stella finds she enjoys reading, devouring Balzac and rather touchingly moved by Duras.
Her struggles are muted (even if a final one is rather serious) and the most pressing obstacle to overcome is passing the school year so as not to repeat. But Stella floats through it all with a dreamy air, and the downplayed drama matches her mien; her voiceover, observations and occasional daydreams are deftly handled and often rather amusing, and the flowering of a first crush is neatly conveyed in a single shot as she walks behind the object of her affection.
The film is basically autobiographical, written and directed by Sylvie Verheyde (and nicely scored by Nousdeuxlabande and some great late 70s French pop), and whilst it does not amount to a great deal, it wins through on the skill and restraint of the direction and a charmingly unostentatious central performance from Léora Barbara, onscreen for almost the entire running time and effortlessly carrying the film (it also features, in a disappointingly small role, one of the final performances from Guillaume Depardieu who was shaping up to be a greater actor than his father before his death last October).
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