Giant Little Ones is a small anglophone Canadian independent film promoted as a ‘coming of age’ film and currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for the next 10 months. I missed its original TV broadcast (and I was unaware that Lionsgate released it for streaming in the UK in 2019) but it was recommended by a friend. It is certainly a youth picture but its main distinguishing feature is its presentation of a queer narrative – labelling it ‘coming of age’ seems evasive to me. Franky and Ballas are two high school ‘jocks’ – popular young men on the swimming team with steady girlfriends. They have been friends since early childhood in comfortable suburbia (the film was shot in Saulte Ste. Marie, Northern Ontario) but on the night of Franky’s 17th birthday an incident pushes them apart and forces Franky to deal with a major change in the way his classmates treat him.
The central relationship is complicated by a large group of secondary characters, each with a contribution to make to Franky’s story. Franky’s parents Carly and Ray (played by the two ‘stars’ in the film, Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan) separated a few years earlier when Ray fell hard for a male work colleague and decided he must live with his new lover. Besides his original girlfriend, Franky has arguably more meaningful interactions with Ballas’ sister Natasha (who has her own back story) and Melissa, a classmate who is seemingly exploring the idea of changing her gender identity. I’m a little unsure about Melissa as a character partly because of my major technical problem in viewing the film – I couldn’t find any subtitles. As with many modern films the sound mix of Giant Little Ones proved indecipherable for my ancient ears at times. The actors swallow their lines and there is a great deal of music (not in itself an issue). Franky has his earbuds in most of the time and one reviewer suggests that the dialogue is partly ‘earbud’ sound so I don’t think I’m alone with the problem. I often use subtitles for US teen films, partly because of the slang but I generally find the Canadian accent more pleasing.
My problem with the dialogue didn’t stop me following the narrative but forgive me if it seems that I have misread any scenes or any character behaviour. What should we make of a film that has been warmly received by many audiences and especially by LBGTQ+ audiences? In one sense, it is a recognisable conventional film as this interviewer suggests on an Australian website:
DR: The film seems like a perfect entry in a genre that would be very familiar to queer film festival-goers: gay teen has crush on hunky best friend, something happens on a sleepover and high-school consequences ensue. It probably took me a couple of days after watching the film to recognise how thoroughly it subverts all those narrative conventions. (Daniel Reeders on starobserver.com.au)
Those narrative conventions include homophobia, toxic masculinity and sexual assault etc. as well as the concept of gender fluidity. But somehow these actions, whether visualised or alluded to in dialogue, don’t determine the overall impact of the narrative. In the same interview quoted above, Daniel Reeders suggests that the film is “a love letter to gentle masculinity”. That seems like a good call and it derives to a large extent from the performance of Josh Wiggins as Franky. The writer-director of the film Keith Behrman has said that he thinks that making the right casting decision was the crucial factor in the success of the film. He spent a long time developing and honing the script with producer Alison Black and he suggests that Wiggins is a sensitive actor who understood the script so well that he need only minimal direction. I certainly feel that it is an extraordinary performance and that the actor, who would have been 19 at the time, is convincing as a 17 year-old.
All the performances are good and the film flows almost effortlessly. That must be a result of script and performance but also camerawork (Guy Godfree) and editing (Sandy Pereira), music scoring by Michael Brook and overall control by Behrman. As several reviews state, anyone watching the first part of the film will probably feel that they know where it is going but it probably won’t turn out as they expect. I won’t say any more about the narrative. Please watch it and make up your own mind. I simply note that Keith Behrman spent a long time thinking about the story and waited to make the film. He did fear that it might not resonate with contemporary young audiences but he says that they seem to get it. Aspects of it have also become more topical in the last few years.
I would just like to add a few comments about the film’s status as a Canadian independent. It is noticeable that the leads are primarily US actors (Wiggins is from Texas). Taylor Hickson as Natasha and Darren Mann as Ballas are the main Canadian actors (I think he is much older than his character, though he looks the part). There is an easy two-way movement of actors between US and anglo-Canadian film and TV but Canadian films are distinct from US films made in Canada. It’s interesting that the swimming team features in the film. Swimming is a strong Canadian sport and the only other alternative might have been hockey, but swimming allows photography of these young male bodies. This reminded me of Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (France 2007) about teenage girls in a synchronised swimming team. More recently, I was reminded of Nadia, Butterfly (Canada 2020) about Canadian women’s competitive swimming. Another youth picture which shares some elements is Victoria Day (Canada 2009) with its hockey background for a young man. Canadian films often struggle in international distribution, especially the anglophone ones, but I hope this exposure on iPlayer finds audiences in the UK. I forgot to mention that the film is in nicely shot ‘Scope. Here’s the TIFF trailer:
The State I Am In is the first of Christian Petzold’s cinema features and has also been identified as the first film of a trilogy which includes Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005) and Yella (2007). The film was written by Petzold and his former film school tutor Harun Faroki, who co-wrote five of Petzold’s features. The film’s story is very similar to that of the Sidney Lumet film Running on Empty (US 1988) but with the location changed to Europe. IMDb notes that the script by Naomi Foner for Running On Empty is not mentioned in the credits for The State I Am In.
The narrative begins in the Algarve where teenager Jeanne is living in an apartment block by the sea with her parents. The family have been ‘on the run’ since before Jeanne was born, wanted by the German Police and presumably through Interpol by other police forces across Europe. They have had to move several times and Jeanne is getting tired of the constant upheaval and the lack of opportunity to make long-term friends. She meets Heinrich, a young German, but before they can spend much time together, she and her parents must move again. This time the move is more urgent and the situation more desperate. They are forced to return to Germany to seek out old contacts in the hope of funding a final escape to Brazil.
The narrative combines elements of the thriller genre repertoire and the fugitives on the run with the youth picture/’coming of age’ story of Jeanne and Heinrich (who she will meet again in the familiar Petzold territory of the Elbe River area). We never discover what the parents, Clara and Hans actually did that caused them to flee. They are used to defending themselves and carrying a weapon and they are clearly well-educated and disciplined so they do appear to be political activists rather than criminals. Jeanne is experiencing an adolescence that is becoming frustrating since she is missing friendships and the chance to explore the pleasures of consumer capitalism – new clothes and music in particular. She must in a sense ‘work’ for her parents, shopping and running other errands to protect their identities. In return she is home-schooled. Ironically Jeanne will become a petty criminal because she can only acquire new clothes and CDs by shoplifting. This in turn increases her frustration.
I haven’t seen Gespenster, but placing Yella alongside The State I Am In does make sense. In both films a young(ish) German woman is at the centre of a narrative which seems to be allegorical with the woman representing a Germany that is struggling to find a new identity. In Yella, the struggle is about the inequalities of East and West after re-unification. In The State I Am In it is a struggle to get past the political divisions of the 1970s to 1990s in which various left organisations attacked the institutions of the West German state (and its personnel) through direct action. The state responded with anti-communist measures against leftist activists, instigating surveillance and reviving the Berufsverbot, an employment ban for public service posts first introduced in the 1930s. The only direct reference in the film is when Jeanne sneaks into a school screening of the Alan Resnais documentary Night and Fog (France 1956) about the Nazi death camps. The left action groups of the 1970s accused the West German government of a failure to confront the history of fascism in Germany.
The 1970s politics was also about the Vietnam War and the American military presence in Germany (the British and French military presence was seemingly less provocative?). The political discourses in West Germany were evident in some of the ‘New German Cinema’ films of the 1970s. Petzold doesn’t make obvious references to political struggles but he does use American culture in Germany as one of the elements that inspires Jeanne. The film begins with a scene in which Jeanne selects a song on a jukebox in a seaside café, Tim Hardin’s 1966 song ‘How Can We Hang On to a Dream’. This plaintive song might be read as a commentary on the film itself in the sense of a couple who try to keep their political convictions intact. The same song plays, non-diegetically, over the final credits. It’s earlier appearance is the background to Heinrich coming over to bum a cigarette off Jeanne in the café. He turns out to be a surfer with a poster for The Endless Summer (US 1965), the cult surfing documentary, in his room. He tells Jeanne that he is obsessed with Brian Wilson, the creative leader of The Beach Boys. I couldn’t help thinking of the early Wim Wenders movies from New German Cinema in which many characters play American music.
When Petzold made The State I Am In he had already completed some short films and two features made for TV. For his début cinema feature he had the support of his regular collaborators such as DoP Hans Fromm, film editor Bettina Böhler and music composer Stefan Will who have generally stayed with him over his career. The State I Am In doesn’t have the lustre of the recent films such as Undine (2020) but its pared down style matches the feel of its narrative. Petzold is well-served by his trio of lead actors with Julia Hummer as Jeanne, Barbara Auer as Clara and Richy Müller as Hans. The supporting roles, especially Bilge Bingul as Heinrich, are also strong. I enjoyed the film and I’m pleased to have seen it in the current MUBI season of Petzold films. I did see the Sidney Lumet film back in 1988 but I can’t remember it well enough to make a comparison. I just remember that it was River Phoenix who played the slightly older teenager.
Here is the opening of the film:
Because the Japan Foundation Film Tour online has proven so popular I just booked whatever was still available. I have since been surprised to discover that the pairs of films I watched seem to have quite specific elements in common. This oddly-titled film has several elements in common with Hello World, although they each have a different appeal. Like the anime, this features an introverted young man who will be surprised to be brought out of himself by a ‘double’ and the twin characters will end up both protecting and in a sense competing for the attention of a young woman. Those are important elements of a narrative, but the two films turn out rather differently. The opening of Our 30-Minute Sessions introduces us to a high school/college band in the process of forming after meeting up at a festival in 2013. There are four guys and a girl. Later the lead singer/ band leader gives the girl a Walkman-type cassette player and a mixtape and then a montage shows the years passing quickly until 2018 when the band are due to perform at the same festival. But an accident means that the bandleader Aki is killed and his Walkman lost. A year later the Walkman is found by Sota, a young man in his last year at university who is struggling to get a job because he always fails to impress at interviews.
When Sota plays the tape on Aki’s Walkman something strange happens. There is no easily discernible sound on the tape but playing it conjures up Aki’s ghost. Sota sees himself as a body occupied by Aki. There are two Sotas, but the real one is invisible to everyone else and the other one accosts Kana, Aki’s girlfriend and fellow band member. When the effect wears off after the C60 cassette has played 30 minutes, Aki’s ghost becomes visible to (only) Sota and Sota regains control of his own body. The title now becomes clear and before I watched the film I had caught a video statement by the director suggesting the narrative idea comes from the fact that recordings on tape are never completely erased and can be recovered, although after they have been played many times they will eventually disappear. If I tell you that the band had broken up following Aki’s death and that Sota has some musical talent as well as channelling Aki’s ghost, you can probably work out the rest of the plot yourself. I don’t need to spoil any more of the narrative.
Our 30-Minute Sessions is an interesting generic mix. The narrative is driven by the idea of the double or doppelganger. I first thought of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) but that is two sides of the same person. A better model might be Dostoyevsky’s The Double (1846) in which a clerk sees a second version of himself. Aki is more socially skilled than Sota but, as a ghost, he needs Sota’s body. Aki is not evil and doesn’t intend to harm Sota. On the contrary he wants to help him. But inevitably Sota is going to be ‘opened up’ by Aki’s behaviour, becoming more confident. While this odd haunting lasts, the two personalties need each other – but Sota has a future, Aki does not. The two main areas of interest are music, getting the band back together, and helping Kana to overcome her grief. This means that we have both a musical and a romance repertoire of generic elements and another genre structure, sometimes called the ‘coming of age’ film – or perhaps the ‘flowering of Sota’s personality’? Director Hagiwara Kentarô’s statement points to the philosophical question about how ideas and statements, feelings etc. don’t just die. They live on if others remember them. In this way the band’s music becomes richer over time as Sota’s creativity adds more layers and stimulates the others while not eradicating Aki’s original creations.
I enjoyed watching this film but I’m not sure how well it would perform outside Japan and its target audience, which I think might be teenage girls. We often think of popular music as linked to ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll’ but we don’t get any of that here. The romance is remarkably chaste. The band members are all attractive and ‘nice’, the music is melodic and generic but a little bland. There is no ‘grit’ apart from a few generic spats within the band. What is also sad, I think, is that Kana is the only female character of note (apart from her mother) and as in Hello World, her part is underwritten. Both Sota and Kana are missing a parent and their single parents are supportive without interfering. Again the film is good to look at, almost like a live action version of a manga. I don’t know where it is set, but it looks a pleasant place to live with familiar images of Japan at peace with the wind rustling through the leaves on the trees. All the performances are good as is the cinematography by Imamura Keisuke. The pacing is a little slow, fine for a serious drama but not for this kind of genre film? The script by Ohshima Satomi just needs a little more spice.
Here is a Japanese trailer (English subs should appear via the CC menu):
I enjoyed Foxfire very much and I’m dismayed at its lack of profile. The film was distributed by Curzon in the UK but I think it must have been in cinemas very briefly as I only managed to catch it on DVD. In the US it was only on streamers I think. Foxfire is adapted from a novel by Joyce Carol Oates that was previously adapted for a 1996 film starring Angelina Jolie. This later film was directed by the French auteur filmmaker Laurent Cantet. Cantet made the film, in English, in Toronto and the smaller cities of Peterborough and Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. The novel was set in up-state New York in the early 1950s and, as David Cronenberg discovered with A History of Violence (Canada-US 2005), small Canadian towns can sometimes easily be made to look like American towns of the 1950s. It’s a film shot by Cantet’s regular cinematographer Pierre Milon and co-wriitena nd edited by the similarly regular collaborator Robin Campillo. Youth films should have music and Cantet went for original music by Timber Timbre plus a selection of other tracks from the 1950s including Johnny Carroll and His Hot Rocks and Rosco Gordon.
The narrative is set in a small town and for most of the time is ‘narrated’ by Maddy (Katie Coseni) a girl at high school. One night she is surprised by a knock on her bedroom window and the appearance of ‘Legs’, a girl from her school who was sent 100 miles away to live with her grandma because her single father an no longer control her. But Legs (Raven Adamson) has other ideas. She and Maddy form ‘Foxfire’, a secret girls’ society which aims to protect its members and give them succour when the world turns against them. Maddy is an aspiring writer and she decides to chronicle events as the group grows and develops. In the novel, the timeline is disrupted at points as the older Maddy remembers the events of her younger teenage years. Director Cantet and his co-writer Robin Campillo initially tried to adopt the novel’s strategy but eventually decided to present a linear narrative with just Maddy’s voiceover commentary as the most effective cinematic form. I haven’t read the novel or seen the earlier film so I can’t make comparisons. I have, however, seen most of Cantet’s films and simplifying the narrative structure does not mean a conventional treatment of the material. Cantet has strong ideas about an aesthetic but this was the first time that he had tackled a ‘period’ picture.
The Foxfire gang adds new members as various girls in the local school are ‘avenged’ by the gang. The first to really benefit is Rita (Madeleine Bisson) who is the butt of pranks and worse by local youths and whose meek resignation when treated harshly by a teacher enrages the other girls. At first the ‘vengeance’ missions harm only the individual men/boys who have committed abuse of some kind, but gradually, as the group expands, the girls’ actions affect more people in the town and the main gang members are arrested. ‘Legs’ is not chastened by experience of reform school and when she gets out she re-activates the gang, aiming for ‘independence’ by setting up an early form of a commune or women’s refuge (a young married woman joins the group) in an old house on the edge of town. The second half of the narrative is then a study of how the group first comes together with new members and then, inevitably perhaps, begins to break up under the pressure of finding enough money to run and renovate a large old house. A major incident eventually ends everything. A short coda a few years later shows us Maddy sorting through her writings about the group and discussing memories with Rita.
Cantet decided early on not to focus too much on ‘authentic period details’. He had spent much of a Toronto winter searching for mainly non-professionals to play his teenagers and he followed his usual strategy of rehearsing aspects of the narrative quite intensively before filming scenes with at least two cameras running throughout each scene and with his actors trying to play their parts ‘naturally’. The result is not polished but instead is imbued with a sense of spontaneity. We believe in the young women’s resistance to patriarchy and the rigid social conventions of the period. Cantet includes moments when when at least one of the girls reveals her latent racism and encourages others to veto the membership of a young Black woman Legs met in reform school. On the other hand, the group does recognise at least the beginnings of a feminist understanding when they accept a young woman escaping an abusive marriage. There is also an important sub-plot which involves a wealthy upper-class supporter of Legs who displays cunning in using this relationship. Finally, there is an old man who shares his memories and his communist convictions with Legs – something very provocative in Eisenhower’s America.
The US is a country where radicalism exists, but you see it very little officially. The girls in the film are brought to a political consciousness that has a lot of resonance with what’s happening in the heads of young people today. As far as I am concerned, Foxfire is my most political film. (Laurent Cantet quoted in the Guardian, 8/8/2013)
Overall, Foxfire might be a challenge for some audiences in that it runs for 140 minutes without recognisable stars or a generic narrative. By this I mean that scenes don’t necessarily work out as we might expect. Personally, I didn’t find this was a problem and I appreciated the relative longueurs contrasted with some exciting and dramatic sequences. The more I see of Cantet’s work the more interesting I find it.
The Workshop directed and co-written by Laurent Cantet is currently screening on BBC iPlayer until early January. Cantet is a celebrated auteur who won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2008 for Entre les murs (The Class). He has a distinctive approach to narratives that often create tensions inside groups of people in provocative ways.
The Workshop is inspired by a real event in 1999 when an English novelist was invited to run a writing workshop for young people in the small coastal town of La Ciotat on the French Mediterranean coast between Marseille and Toulon. The workshop featured in a French Cultural TV programme. Cantet thought about making a film at that time but switched to another project, only to return in 2016 and write a script with Robin Campillo, a long time collaborator who in 1999 had worked as an editor on the TV original programme. The new context, during the period when France suffered a series of high profile terror attacks, proved to be stimulating in various ways.
There are several important issues that feed into the social, cultural, economic and political context of the film. La Ciotat is a small town of only around 34,000. It has an important place in film history as the location of the summer residence of the Lumière Brothers. One of the earliest films by the Lumières, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was first shown in February 1896 in Paris. La Ciotat was also a major shipbuilding centre and the first French shipyard to produce steamships in the mid 19th Century using imported British technologies. In the 1970s it became known for the construction of oil tankers and bulk carriers, very large ships, eventually of up to 300,000 tons. In the late 1980s French shipbuilding was ‘rationalised’ and the yard was shut, although the workers campaigned to keep it open. Gradually the town began to focus on tourism and developed a yacht marina. The shipbuilding legacy saw yacht repairs and specialist boatbuilding return with far fewer jobs. Shipbuilding is the ‘heritage’ of the town, supported by local cultural projects, hence the writing workshop – a community-based event. But do the current generation of young people feel connected to the history of the town?
The coastline of the old province of Provence runs from Marseille to the Italian border and offers a mix of the industrial and the touristic with a focus on art and entertainment on the Cote d’Azur as well as the main naval port of Toulon. It figures prominently in French cinema, joyfully in a film like Jules et Jim (1962) and more intriguingly in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965). What is important is that as the major French region with ports for direct contact with North Africa, this is also a region with Maghrebi families now into second and third generations as well as the returned settlers after the independence of the French colonies in the Maghreb. So the region has widespread support for Front Nationale/National Rally, whereas de-industrialisation has weakened support for the Socialists and Communists.
Cantet is careful not to provide too much background to the workshop and how the seven young people (four male, three female) were selected. Some have genuine ambitions to be writers, but others may just be bored or pressurised to come by the local job centre or by parents. It is important though that this group is representative of the town in terms of ethnicity, social class and religion. Although it is very much a group, the events push forward Antoine (an outstanding performance by Matthieu Lucci who has since gone on to appear in other film and TV productions). Ironically, Antoine claims that he doesn’t want to speak and feigns disinterest but when he does speak he is provocative and therefore potentially disruptive, but also intelligent and clearly engaged with a range of ideas. At one point he watches a French Armed Forces recruitment video and suggests that he might join the army. France has the largest armed forces in Europe and is active in many parts of the world. There is no conscription in France and instead promotional events and ‘taster’ drives prove effective in recruiting. The prospect of army life as an alternative to the lack of employment openings for young people links L’atelier to films like Les combattants (France 2014) with its central character of a highly educated young woman determined to join up.
Antoine proves to be someone who the novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs), the workshop leader, feels compelled to confront. She finds him mysterious and, perhaps unwisely, decides to engage with him outside the workshop. This gives Cantet the opportunity to develop a possible thriller. I don’t wish to spoil the narrative in any way so I’ll stop there. This is an intelligent film, but one that is complex in terms of what it is exploring – which isn’t the kind of action narrative that mainstream audiences expect. The ending of the film will not satisfy everyone but seemed to me to work very well. I think it’s time to go back and look at some of Laurent Cantet’s other films sitting in my DVD pile.
My final film in this year’s Cheltenham International Film Festival (still available online here) was proably the best; vying with Antigone and Rounds for the accolade. Narratively it’s a conventional ‘coming of age’ story however as it’s set on an Innu reservation in Quebec, the cultural difference is sufficient to make it stand out. Add to that the marvellous central performance of Sharon Fontaine Ishpatao as Mikuan and Myriam Verreault’s confident direction, we get a cracking film. The film’s based on Naomi Fontaine’s impressionistic novel and the ethnically white Verreault ensured that she would be sensitive in adapting the novel through getting to know the Innu community as well as recruiting Fontaine as co-writer.
I’m guessing that the narrative is autobiographical, in general if not in the detail. Orla Smith, at the start of her interview with Fontaine and Verreault, states:
Kuessipan is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Noami Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.
This Othering of difference that reduces the diversity of a cultural group into a homogenous, and often misunderstood, blob is, of course, a huge problem. One of the functions of art is to get us to understand others and the film does that superbly with its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of thepoverty-stricken reservation life. Ishpatao portrays the vulnerability and strength of her character who is pushing against the limitations of roots and against the way she is seen by white people; she’s in a limbo and so it seems, at times, that she belongs nowhere. Mikuan has a tough time personally, with added melodramatic family tragedies, but has the inner strength needed to combat adversity.
Verreault, in her feature film debut, brilliantly integrates actors and non-actors and so the film’s authenticity comes from more than the location shooting. When Mikuan joins a school writing group it feels the scene has been created through improv so convincing is the interaction; and her poetry is great.
An interview with the lead actors, Ishpatao and Yamie Grégoire who plays Shaniss Mikuan’s ‘friend for life’, states there is more indigenous filmmaking happening in the area and it would be great if we could get more of it on the festival circuit. Particularly if they’re as good as this.