Director – Fred Baillif – 2021 – Switzerland – Cert. 15 – 110m
The lives of inmates in a girls’ care home, and the working lives of the staff who look after them – out in UK & Irish cinemas on Friday, February 25th
This ‘docudrama’ (for want of a better term) follows the residents of a Geneva care home for vulnerable young people.
Screaming blue murder, a young woman is escorted from the premises by a policewoman.
Lora (Claudia Grob), the manager of this care home, returns after time off to say “hi” to the girls. (The fact of her returning is thrown in to the narrative almost casually at this point; only later does its significance become apparent.) These girls are vulnerable children in the State’s care, and Lora feels like a mother to them. They, in turn, refer to the home – meaning themselves and the other girls, with their support workers on hand in the background as sort of substitute parents – as La Mif (French slang for “the family”; literally, “The Fam”).
Novinha (Kassia Da Costa) is a sassy, pushy teenager who talks frankly about sex, And everything else. Audrey (Anaïs Uldry) – the arrested girl from the opening – has been caught having sex with a boy three years younger than her; after this, the centre is turned into a home for girls only. Alison (Amélie Tonsi) has a crush on Caroline (Amandine Golay). The two play truant together, although Caroline may not feel the same way about Alison as Alison does about her. Then Caroline’s dad dies – and someone must tell her. Justine (Charlie Areddy) harbours is guilt-ridden over a dark secret in her family’s past. The younger Précieuse (Joyce Esther Ndayisenga) has come in on an Emergency Protection Order to protect her from her parents.
Although the piece focuses on the girls, the other staff members are also introduced to us via a series of staff meetings at which the situations of various different girls are discussed. But aside from Lora, they consistently feel like secondary characters.
Each of a series of episodes each bearing the name of a different girl and following her story. The stories of some of the girls, including Novinha and Alison, run throughout. Some of these choices may have been dictated by the heavy reliance on improvisation, so those teens whose performances have proved more compelling have been pushed to the fore.
As her dropping in to the home at the start indicates, Lora is not without her own problems. Eventually, her own situation and past emerges; she is recovering from a difficult bereavement. This may have affected her on-the-job judgement and she finds herself up before a professional panel having to justify her handling of her charges, with particular regard to the case of the older and younger teenagers having sex.
The film uses a loop structure, returning to specific scenes to reveal more each time and overlapping several stories / timelines. While this device works well enough of itself, what captivates us are the stories of the teenage girls and their manager, along with the performances of the young, almost entirely female cast playing them, who are terrific. (The adult care workers are a mixture of male and female.)
The real kicker, though, is what you’re actually watching. All the actors are real life care home staff and residents, including Claudia Grob who runs the real life care home in which the film was shot. So in a way, these are not actors at all but non-actors although there’s no denying their performances are extremely powerful on the screen. Director Banliff, who has himself spent much time as a social worker, went through a lengthy programme of discussion and improvisation with all those acting here, allowing stories to emerge from that process. So it could almost be a documentary in the way the camera captures what’s going in, except that it’s not: it’s fiction. And highly compelling fiction at that.
In its use of improvisation and non-actors, it recalls Rocks (Sarah Gavron, 2019). As a fly-on-the-wall docudrama, it never flinches from its subject matter. There’s a raw intensity here that will hold your attention throughout.
La Mif is out in cinemas in the UK & Ireland on Friday, February 25th.