France (2020) Dir. Bruno Merle

We all have choices. It’s making the right decision that is the key, and often that means having to think about how it affects others rather than just ourselves, which many don’t. This, in essence is one of the responsibilities of being a parent.

11 year-old Tommy (Rita Merle) is the daughter of an unorthodox bohemian couple, Tim (Pio Marmaï) and Chloé (Camille Rutherford). Tim doesn’t have a regular job from being an ex-convict whilst Chloé is a house cleaner. As the summer holidays are drawing to a close, Tommy has one wish – not to be late on the first day of term like always.

She makes her parents promise this won’t happen this year, but some wrong decisions made by them but for the right reason jeopardise this promise being kept. Chloé goes missing, leading to Tim stealing a sports car to go find her which simply makes matters worse. And then a cynical spaceman gets into Tommy’s ear.

Family eh? What would you do with them? This is the question Bruno Merle asks in his second feature film, a spry 80-minute comedy/drama of errors that spends much of its run time wrong footing the audience. This deception of perception isn’t a key plot point but it is integral to the narrative, allowing Merle to throw in some quirkier elements that should feel incongruous but instead somehow fit in nicely.

On the surface everything seems very normal as it should, the surprises are neat little twists on this normalcy that are too good to spoil, but make discussing the film and the plot very difficult without doing so. By the way, the title Felicità comes from the name of an Italian pop song from the 80s played during a car journey, the word translating into English as “happiness”.

The film opens with a skit designed to delineate the core relationship of this family and the unusual parenting styles of Tim and Chloé. Having a late breakfast in a roadside café, Tim suddenly reveals to Tommy she is not their child and her real father is a rapper named Orelsan, asking her if she wants to meet him. Instead of being shocked, Tommy shrugs it off and tells Tim to try better, implying this is a family trait as they all laugh it off afterwards.

Enjoying life in a plush country home where Tommy wanders around carrying a ragged toy monkey, curious about the padlocked attic she is forbidding from entering. Then Chloé gets a call from her cleaning agency informing her the homeowners are returning a day early. Oh, this idyllic existence is not theirs, it’s someone else’s – Chloé knew the real family would be away so she and hers set up home for the duration.

Presumably another regular habit for them, the military style operation to put the house right is set in action. This is one of those scenarios where we know it is wrong yet we can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity despite their temerity. It raises questions about what this is teaching Tommy as this behaviour seems well ingrained within her. Standing in judgement of Tim and Chloé for their dubious parenting is a natural reaction yet it also forces us to reflect upon ourselves too, not just parents but as decision makers

As the enigmatic spaceman (played by Orelsan) tells Tommy, it is all about the choices we make – one is right, one is wrong but both tell a story. Shortly after, Tommy has to choose whose car to get in – mum or dad – forcing her to pick the one she is least angry with at that moment. But as the translated title implies, this is about happiness – the lifestyle of this family doesn’t match ours of that of any sense of convention, Tommy is happy with Tim and Chloé as her parents.

Like the audience, Tommy is curious about her father’s past and where he was for the first four years of her life. Tim treats Tommy like an adult and is honest about making the wrong decision one upon a time but is vague about the details, usually saved by a timely distraction during the discussion. Chloé alludes briefly to her past in a joke that may or may not have some truth to it; otherwise her character isn’t expanded upon to any great length.

You might be wondering where the spaceman comes into this. Well, he only appears in two scenes, both when Tommy is wearing her noise cancelling headphones in the back of the family’s aging estate car. He might be a whimsy too far for some, being either a manifestation of Tommy’s conscience with regard to her unusual upbringing, or there for the audience who may not have got the message Merle is imparting.

Casting his own daughter might be nepotism but Merle has a truly talented star in the making in Rita. She is not just a joy to watch as a bubbly, curious personable child but her performances is laced with maturity and character beyond her years, found in her reactions and deft skill at keeping the mystery of the story’s direction alive. We should not downplay her adult co-stars contributions either, their believable chemistry with Rita is vital to the film’s success, but this is her moment.

Merle does something quite interesting with the presentation in that we can see clearly this is a slightly offbeat comedy yet he doesn’t direct it as one, even with the spaceman present. Everything is composed and shot like a piece of art is being created, whilst the mise-en-scene feels more dramatic than humorous. Certain scenes play up to this more than others yet the idea this is ultimately a feel good film never really dissipates.

Felicità is cut from the same dysfunctional family cloth as films like Little Miss Sunshine but with less angst and contrivance, making it a more charming if often slight affair.

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