The fact that, early on in Franco-Canadian director Shalimar Preuss's debut feature, there's a handheld camera following behind a young girl makes you want to scream: enough already with the Dardenne brothers' playbook! Nevertheless, it's a shame that stylistic trope overshadows the good things in this amiable yet ultimately slight tale about coming of age. Ms. Preuss starts us off in media res, in the middle of a Summer family vacation in the isle of Ré off the French coast, where a boatload of kids, from tweens to teenagers, seem to exist in a perpetual, laughing limbo of leisurely, playful days alongside their parents. All but one: the surly 17-year old Maden (Lou Aziosmanoff), who keeps apart from the others, often alone in her room, keeping a secret only one of the others knows of. Maden is corresponding in secret with an inmate in the local prison, exchanging love letters.

     It's a startling choice - she is not yet "of age" and is too young to be a lonely woman who fantasizes about a love story with a jailbird. Ms. Preuss slowly reveals just enough to explain the reasons - through the slightly off family dynamics between her and her father François (Jocelyn Lagarrigue), who left the family years back and returns only for vacations, as well as with her twin cousins Judith and Céline (Manon Aziosmanoff and Nine Aziosmanoff), who learn of the secret but keep it to themselves at first. There's a sense that Maden is setting herself partly by choice rather than through any bullying at the hands of the other kids, but Ms. Preuss makes very clear that she is fundamentally looked at judgmentally by everyone else, only truly revealing herself in the letters she sends and receives.

     It's in the well-judged push-and-pull of family relationships doubled as a slow-burn drama of teenage angst that the director succeeds in holding the viewer's interest in Ma Belle Gosse, with a strong contribution from the easy performances of the ensemble cast and the warm, Mediterranean glare of Virginie Surdej's lensing. It's a shame, though, that the narrative never really "catches fire", preferring to flow moodily in an oblique, diffuse pattern that leaves too many things unexplained; that might have been the whole idea but pins on the film a sense of an uncoloured, unfilled sketch. Still, it's a thoughtful, sensitive work; judging by it, it's worth keeping an eye on Ms. Preuss.

Cast: Lou Aziosmanoff, Jocelyn Lagarrigue, Manon Aziosmanoff, Nine Aziosmanoff, Hélène Cinque, Victor Laforge, Rebecca Convenant, Sédrenn Lebrousse, Jean-Luc Mimault, Raphaël Lagarrigue, Georges Guéneau
Director: Shalimar Preuss
Screenplay: Ms. Preuss, Émilie Guilhen
Cinematography: Virginie Surdej  (colour)
Music: Vincent Ségal
Designer: Aurélie Descoins
Editor: Gustavo Vasco
Producer: Emmanuel Chaumet  (Ecce Films in co-production with Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains)
France, 2012, 83 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition advance streaming screener, Lisbon, April 14th 2013


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