France (2018) Dir. Mikhaël Hers

For all the negativity and toxic hostility that occurs on social media, there are still some decent people in the world who are willing to support others in need. Lest we forget though, even those offering support need support too.

Paris 2015, and David (Vincent Lacoste) is a 24 year-old man flirting with different jobs, but is otherwise aimless. He is close to his older sister Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) and her 7 year-old daughter Amanda (Isaure Multrier). David meets Lena (Stacy Martin) and in an effort to include her in his life, arranges a picnic in Central Park, but David is late due to a delayed train.

When David arrives, he finds there has been a terrorist attack – Sandrine is dead and Lena was shot in the arm. With a complicated family history leaving little support for Amanda, David is asked to become her official guardian but he is unsure if he is ready or willing to accept such a role. There is initial help from an aunt Maud (Marianne Basler) but David finds it hard to keep his own life in check, whilst Amanda struggles to deal with her mother’s death.

Amanda might be the one whose name is in the title of this sensitive French drama, but it is actually about David and his stepping up to give his niece a better start in life in the absence of other options. Director Mikhaël Hers plays everything by the book in terms of not overcomplicating the story or the presentation, making this an anodyne experience in places, yet does enough to keep us invested in this complex journey.

It is also a tale about how processing the loss of a loved one takes on different forms from person to person. For some it is instant, others it takes a while to hit home. Hers chooses to explore this through two people mourning the same person but with different bonds to them. Inspired by the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, Hers wanted to reflect the hostile times we live in and the direct effect of violence on society.

The fateful shooting is a fictionalised one, perhaps out of respect for the real life victims or their survivors should they be watching this film, not shown on screen. Hers chooses a more upsetting way to depict it by having David ride into the scene surveying the dead bodies and wounded people staggering around in shock. This is far more impactful, less sensationalist and doesn’t disturb the gentle tone of the film.

Naturally, it befalls to David to tell Amanda about her mother’s death but he finds it hard to tell her straight away, waiting for the right time. But after Amanda asks one too many times where mummy is, David has no choice but to be honest with her. Amanda takes the news rather well, perhaps not fully understanding what she was told which is par for the course with young children.

Eventually it starts making a difference but Amanda appears to treat this as a temporary absence; when David moves Sandrine’s things from the bathroom, Amanda demands he put them back, signalling the sense of comfort familiar possessions of her mother gives Amanda on a daily basis. Yet she remains remarkably resilient and even pragmatic, as if by not acknowledging Sandrine’s passing and allowing herself to grieve, the reality won’t hurt so much.

Hers is careful not to paint David as a shirker of his responsibilities toward Amanda or a reluctant substitute parent per many Hollywood comedies. David would do anything for his niece but with his own life being so unpredictable, he doesn’t know if he has it in him to take on this duty. The only other option is his mother Alison (Greta Scacchi), who split from his father when he was born and moved to London, keeping out of contact.

Ordinarily, this would lead to overwrought melodrama with screaming rows, tears, and a redemptive conclusion. Hers opts for a more civil approach to achieve the same thing, and it is still compelling, creating an atmosphere closer to real life. For the denouement when it all comes together, Hers goes for something a little unusual: a tennis match at Wimbledon!

Bear with me, it makes sense when you see it, although it is a bit of bait and switch after the “Elvis has left the building” scene early in the film. Seeing mother and daughter bopping around the room to Don’t Be Cruel is a joyous moment that, when you know what is coming later, is Hers doing the exact of what Elvis was imploring – being cruel in showing us what is about to be lost.

Looking at it the other way, both Amanda and David are about to gain something out of this tragic scenario, but this a rather glib interpretation of the story Hers is sharing with us. Loss is an important part of the story but serves more as a catalyst for self-discovery for David. There is a sort of riff on the British stiff upper lip as David tries his hardest to hold his grief in then breaks down, before carrying on again as usual afterwards, rather uncharacteristic for the emotional French.

Juggling the various moving parts in his life, of which Amanda is the most important, David is determined to make them all coalesce. Vincent Lacoste captures this facet of his character with rare insight, allowing the changes in him to gradual and subtle, so the burden he feels is not that Amanda is an imposition on him, but whether he is up to the job of raising her. Isaure Multrier is so natural and unaffected as Amanda, she is likely to have the audience wanting to adopt her.   

Despite the gravid premise and some graphic content including nudity, Amanda feels like a slight film because of its inherent avoidance of tortured drama, which ironically is its biggest charm. Thoughtful and affecting without being sentimental.