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BLACK NIGHTS 2018 First Feature Competition

Review: Head Above Water

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- On the difficult subject of a family living with disability, Margaux Bonhomme directs a realistic and successful first feature, thanks to the film’s acting performances

Review: Head Above Water
Diane Rouxel and Jeanne Cohendy in Head Above Water

"I wish things were easier." For 17-year-old Elisa, full of energy and an appetite for the future, life is an uphill climb – mirrored in the rock climbs she goes on with her father: the grips are delicate, the summit seems far away and there’s always room to fall if a bad decision is made. Indeed, the family situation at the heart of Head Above Water [+see also:
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by Margaux Bonhomme, unveiled in international premiere at Tallinn's Black Nights Film Festival (in the First Feature Competition), has taken a particularly problematic turn with the mother’s desertion of the family home, where daily life has revolved around Elisa’s sister, Manon, for the past twenty years, who is physically and mentally disabled. A dramatic twist that comes just as Elisa is preparing to travel to the big city to recommence her high-school studies. 

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Bonhomme’s film is firmly anchored in the reality of the difficult decision (whether to leave or to stay) Elisa must make (the filmmaker has personal experience with disability) and finds a good balance between the “classic” narrative of a young girl's transition to adulthood and the tackling of a broader societal question (what to do when a disabled child grows up?), a genuine vocation for relatives, who are often caught in a vice of love and guilt. 

Manon is looked after by a specialist educator during the day, and then by her father and sister during the evening, who care for her as if she were a big baby (car rides to rock her to sleep, music to distract her, caresses, massages, blankets and swing supports, etc.) with infinite patience (she emits groans and sways back and forth almost permanently). But with the start of the academic year looming, Manon (the exceptional Jeanne Cohendy) will either have to be definitively placed in a care centre or kept at home, as her father François would much prefer (the charismatic Cédric Kahn). Upset by her mother's desertion and deeply loving of her sister, Elisa decides to sacrifice her own future to preserve what remains of the family unit. But handling Manon on a daily basis is no mean feat and doubt starts to creep into Elisa's spirit, who begins to take a different look at her father and seeks a way out from what looks like a dead end…

Well-acted by its primary trio, including Diane Rouxel (whose fierce energy is perfectly embodied in the character of Elisa), with strong performances in the supporting roles by Agathe Dronne and Pablo Pauly, Head Above Water is a courageous first feature that directly approaches disability with great accuracy (social outlookd, daily organisation, crucial choices, etc.) without tipping into a melodramatic tearjerker, managing instead, to distil a tender modesty. A (more traditional) portrait of a young girl heading towards adulthood and a "special" family on the brink of implosion, the film intelligently takes advantage of the natural setting of Vercors to bring a difficult story to life (filmed in 4/3 format in order to emphasise the situation’s confining aspect), but treated with maximum empathy, as permitted by the context. A moving and raw mix that, despite a few brief narrative accelerators, hits the mark.

Produced by Avenue B, Head Above Water is being sold internationally by Charades and will be distributed in France on 5 December by Nour Films.

(Translated from French)

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