Jacques Doillon is best known for Ponette, a lacerating passion play in which a preschooler simply, stubbornly refuses to believe that her mother, killed in a car wreck, is actually gone forever. Sobbing, whimpering, standing vigil, pleading with God for revelation, four-year-old Victoire Thivisol gave a purely unfeigned performance that was something of a miracle too, raising prickly questions of how the director went about casting it. A similarly ambiguous blend of fact and fiction operates in Doillon’s docu-feature Petits Freres, where the young lady occupying center stage is more Anna Karina than miniature Falconetti. Sloe-eyed, 13-year-old tomboy Talia (Stéphanie Touly), all suspicious glances and defensive confrontation, flees the home of her menacing stepfather and absentee mother with her pit bull, Kim, in futile pursuit of a friend in the Parisian suburb of Pantin. She falls in with a group of boys (the “little fellas” of the title) who taunt her, proposition her, and generally tolerate her until Talia’s sheer presence becomes less amusement or nuisance than simple fact. Iliès (Iliès Sefraoui) wants to go steady with Talia, but that doesn’t prevent him from conspiring to steal Kim and sell the pooch off to the older hoods who organize dogfights around town—thus turning the film into another heartbroken journey in search of a lost, beloved family member.
Doillon’s ease with young performers is again seamlessly evident; the nonpro kids aren’t artless so much as unaffected, and all but lead actress Touly share names with their characters. The essentially parentless petits frères and their aggrieved new soeur loiter in the park, talk trash, orchestrate motorbike-jackings, and run errands for the bigger boys, who traffic in guns, sometimes attract swarms of police, and serve as de facto guidance counselors and job coaches. As a study of a multiethnic, rigidly structured social hierarchy in the hard-knock suburbs, Petits Freres often seems like a prologue to Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (or even a junior side-story), matching its rhythms of aimless downtime exploded by upheavals of violence. Doillon’s film, jagged with jump cuts, might be too determined in its frayed, offhand sprawl (a thread involving Talia’s younger sister, who’s now alone with their stepfather, is picked up and quickly discarded). Some of the commotions are clumsily staged, especially once Talia acquires her own pistol. Petits Freres hardly lacks for mordant wit, though, its outlook abruptly switching to cautious optimism by the last reel. There’s an air of forced camaraderie to Doillon’s ensemble farewell scene—a vision of spontaneous self-celebration that’s hard to believe and hard to begrudge.
It’s far too easy to hold a grudge against Nadia Tass’s stultifying Amy, which would set a new bar for mawkish exploitation of a child’s suffering if its every situation and character weren’t so laughably bogus. After witnessing her Aussie rockstar father’s gruesome electrocution death during a rain-pounded stadium show, a four-year-old apparently falls deaf and mute—only, as her protective mother (Rachel Griffiths) soon discovers, the girl can in fact sing and hear music! The movie really starts coughing up candy-colored bile once a samaritan shrink enters the picture (wee Amy finds Mummy in Rorschach blots and looks appropriately stricken when Doctor holds up the sign, “Where Is Your Father?”), but a cacophonous climax in which the child learns to Live Again via sadistic primal therapy plumbs new depths of craven heartstring-yanking. Surely taking cues from Doillon, Amy is Ponette‘s haplessly evil twin.