France (2014) Dir. Julien Neel

Are French children old before their time or is it just the way they are portrayed in films? Certainly if the 12 year-old protagonist and her friends featured in this quirky comedy are any indication, there is definitely something in the water that makes French seem more mature than other 12 year-olds. Wine perhaps?

Lou (Lola Lasseron) lives with her mother (Ludivine Sagnier) with whom she shares a love for the old fashioned and the retro. Lou and her best friend Mina (Eden Hoch) hang out on the roof of their apartment block where Lou spies on her dream boy Tristan (Joshua Mazé) across the road.

Meanwhile with mum’s life consisting of lazing around in her dressing gown and playing computer games, Lou think new neighbour, bohemian musician Richard (Kyan Khojandi) might be the spark to reignite that flame of happiness in her. But for one of them, the path to true love is not as straight forward as they hoped.

This is about the extent of the actual plot of this film, which is in fact an adaptation of a comic book series by director Julien Neel, which has also been a hit cartoon series on France’s Disney channel. Perhaps then, many of us are not the target audience, despite the lure of the adult cast whilst the occasional coarse language not befitting a 12 rated film for youngsters throws a little confusion over the intended demographic.

As mentioned earlier, Lou is smart cookie for her age and is more the parent than her mother in that particular relationship. Switched on philosophically and emotionally, Lou narrates her life with the voice of someone at least double her age, while mum requires distractions, like a stray cat they adopt, to motivate her into living since her translation job isn’t very buoyant at the moment.

The arrival of gauche but amiable Richard gives Lou the idea that he and her mum with fall in love and life will be good. But Richard couldn’t read the romantic signals if they were 20 feet high, putting the idea of a whirlwind romance in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Lou and Mina fall out and find new “best friends” – Mina hooks up with tough nut Karine (Léa Nataf) while Lou inadvertently falls in with foul mouthed rebel Maria-Emilie (Lily Taieb).

Eventually the girls all come together to form a misfit group of sisters, the harmony (if you will) is threatened when Tristan finally asks Lou on a date, which becomes a group date when he invites his try-hard-trendy mates Preston (Téo Yacoub) and Manolo (Sacha Vassort) and his nerdy posh cousin Jean-Jean (Virgile Hurard).

It is probably around this time where adult viewers will wonder what they’ve let themselves in for, since the kids are largely tropes found in US teen comedies and music videos that we oldies cannot relate to. Thankfully, Lou herself is such a strong character, and beautifully played by youngster Lola Lasseron, that she alone is our bridge between these two worlds, while the awkward group date scenario might possess a nostalgic quality for some.

With heavy doses of animated asides and Michel Gondry-esque transitions, the visual flair of the presentation anchors this adaptation to its comic book origins, while a fantasy visualisation of a sci-fi novel mum is writing is heavily influenced by anime, giving Japanophiles a little bit of unexpected fan service. It might be vibrant and excessive but it is very much inclusive for those of us outside of the current MTV generation.

The appearance of the cast is, or the adults at least, presumably also beholden to the original designs in Neel’s comic books, the most obvious being mum. With her long straight hair, big glasses and permanently bewildered expression, this is a hard image to translate to live action without looking like a caricature or a lazy cliché, but the divine Ludivine Sagnier effortlessly pulls it off.

In a similar situation is Lou’s grandmother, played by an unrecognisable Nathalie Baye. I can actually picture the original character based on her appearance here – tight curly hair, thick rimmed glasses, conservative attire and austere personality. Baye is frighteningly on point as the frosty matriarch unfairly blaming her daughter for all her mishaps, giving way to a great sight gag involving a pillow stapled to a wall.  

Probably the best and understated recurring gag is found in Gino’s, the pizza restaurant Lou and mum eat in regularly due to mum’s bad cooking. Gino and his assistant are both in fact French speaking Chinese, and along with dressing as Super Mario and Luigi, Gino (Winston Ong) insist he is Italian born and bred! And of course, no-one bats an eyelid and why should they with some much inspired lunacy occurring on their doorsteps?

Like many quirky comedies preceding this effort, the anarchic steam begins dissipate in the late second act, which for a 98 minute film is quite a critical downside to harbour, warranting another Gondry comparison in that respect. There is no actual moment to pin point the start of this decline but the lack of an overarching plot beyond Lou’s obsession with Tristan and the speedy romance of her mum and Richard is revealed, the esoteric whimsy of the peripheral distractions losing their impact in the process.

Such it is then that Neel can thank his wisely chosen cast for possessing such innate charisma and talent to make their characters so enjoyable and likeable to boot. Ludivine Sagnier has a wide portfolio of roles, to which she can add this as an example of her versatility. Nathalie Baye’s cameo is atypical of her usual roles, bringing a touch of gravitas with her, but it is Lola Lasseron who has future star written all over her.        

Undeniably and unabashedly French, Lou! might have a hard time finding its target demographic on this side of the channel but those who oblige should find this a sufficiently inventive slice of Gallic eccentricity to help pass an afternoon.