La Mif ****
Starring: Claudia Grob, Anaïs Uldry, Kassia Da Costa, Joyce Esther Ndayisenga, Amélie Tonsi, Amandine Golay, Sara Tulu
Director: Fred Baillif
In all the glitz and glamour of the usual escapism of cinema it’s easy to forget that human beings must sit at the heart of any good story. And though we love watching pretty people doing pretty things in pretty places, it’s sometimes important to be snapped back to reality and to look at life the way it really is. While gritty social realism is hardly something new, it does seem that the Gallic world have a certain nack at capturing society’s underbelly - think La Haine, The Class and last year’s César triumph Les Misérables. And now comes Swiss ensemble drama La Mif - a slang term for “The Family” - which follows confidently in their footsteps.
Lora (Grob) runs a care home for teenagers in Geneva. All are there for disparate reasons, but none are able to live with their birth parents. Though all are emotionally damaged, the social workers work hard to provide the support and affection that they need, but this is all thrown into jeopardy when sixteen-year-old Audrey (Uldry) has sex with a boy three years her junior on-site. The processes and care of the establishment are called into question, as is Lora’s leadership and when tearaway Alison (Tonsi) takes to the streets with her girlfriend too, this unconventional “family” becomes seriously under threat.
Developed and self-funded by director Fred Baillif, the girls are played by non-actors with whom he had been improvising and writing a script for two years. Claudia Grob was the manager of said care-home where these now-actresses lived. She had expressed to Bailiff her dissatisfaction with the juvenile care system, and this became the fundamental basis for the film and Grob would become its star. And what a performance it is, carefully watching the mounting problems with deadpan reticence, but showing her care through decisive bold leadership. This is the kind of “unknown” performance that deserves international recognition.
Each of the girls has a heartbreaking tale to tell, with their destructive behaviour explained by their painful pasts. Despite numerous incidents of antisocial behaviour on screen, watching these girls playing and having fun is a constant reminder of the formative responsibility of childhood trauma. And throughout, we are reminded that those tasked with their care take extreme care to do right by their wards, it is the decisions from on high that are the most damaging. And as the film progresses, it’s this message that is hammered home, scene after scene.
Stark, bleak and hyper-real, this is a film with an - albeit admirable - agenda that refuses to let its audience off the hook. Is this new cinematic territory? No. But then, is the problem still an ever-present reality? Yes. Despite living in one of the richest countries on the planet, these are the forgotten girls; the ones that the Swiss Confederation would prefer to pretend don’t exist. But they do. And Baillif has shone his spotlight on them in an arresting and compelling fashion.
UK Release: 25th February 2022 in cinemas, released by BFI Distribution.