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Films in which little kids are the protagonists are often laden with heavy-handed sentimentality: Witness six-year-old Hushpuppy, the tiny sage of Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, delivering parables about eco-consciousness and selfhood through incessant voice-over. Nana, the pre-K central character in Valérie Massadian’s striking debut feature, is, like Zeitlin’s peewee heroine, a child often left to fend for herself, both acclimated to and engulfed by the flora and fauna surrounding her. But Nana is devoted to observing its itty-bitty star, often at a distance in long, static takes, not romanticizing her or imbuing her with wisdom beyond her years.
Massadian’s film, shot in the region of Perche, 100 miles west of Paris, immediately establishes an aversion to treacle. Situated in the far left of the frame, three kids—two slightly older boys and Nana, played by the remarkably self-possessed four-year-old Kelyna Lecomte—watch and comment occasionally as a trio of farmers stun and then slaughter a sow. That this tyke, in her cotton-candy-pink winter coat, already has a clear sense of the fate of the animals in her midst is made apparent in the next scene: As she and her grandfather (Alain Sabras) play with dozens of adorable piglets, Nana piquantly remarks, “They are little roasts.”
All of Nana’s trenchant comments are Lecomte’s own, apparently. Massadian, who once worked with Nan Goldin and as an art director, told Interview magazine last year: “There’s not one word, one gesture—nothing—that I imposed on her. We played.” (Massadian also served as Nana‘s co-cinematographer and co-editor.) But lurking just outside the realm of the ludic hovers a sense of danger, particularly when Nana’s mother (Marie Delmas), a seemingly unstable woman who walks with an agitated sense of purpose, storms out for good, inexplicably abandoning her child in the rundown stone home located on the outskirts of Granddad’s property.
After Mom’s departure, Nana proves the dictum that Lillian Gish delivered in The Night of the Hunter: “Children are man at his strongest. They abide.” The self-assured—but never precious—child re-creates daily rituals the best she can. Nana suits herself up in red tights, a wee denim skirt, a blue-and-white striped pullover, and pink galoshes, readying for a day of gathering kindling in the forest and preparing meals of cookies and milk.
At times, Nana’s precarious existence suggests that of one of the characters in the oversized book of fairy tales she reads from on the dilapidated couch outside her house. Yet the film’s otherworldly qualities only reinforce the “realness” of its star. A fiction film that documents the unpredictable, unscripted actions of its pint-size lead, Nana offers new ways of thinking about childhood, or, at the very least, about children in movies. Neither all-knowing oracle nor too-cute moppet, Massadian’s heroine is curious, resilient, imaginative—just like others her age.