Review: It’s Not Me, I Swear

It’s Not Me, I Swear is a film that takes a tonally difficult and topically potentially controversial tale and handles its narrative with a level of sophistication that allows its dark whimsy, humor and introversion to radiate outward. The tone, and the blueprint for the story, are set almost immediately with the use of voice over narration in which the protagonist, Léon , waxes philosophical on his interpretation of life at the tender age of eleven, how he finds it futile and has tried to end it on several occasions.

However, considering the fact that this is the film that Phillippe Falardeau would tackle just prior to Monsieur Lazhar, it’s not impossible to see how he would be able to balance the tenuous tone and also be able to handle children acting in rather complex and profound roles. In a quirk of the international distribution game this film has actually only found release in the United States this year (on home video) and is subsequently eligible for the 2014 BAM Awards slate.

From the internalized narration we get the externalization. Leon’s latest suicide attempt is thwarted and sets the story and further events into motion. With all the life-altering moments that will occur throughout the film, and the unusual characters to whom said events occur; it’d be tempting to externalize too much of the narrative and thus have the film wallow in melodrama. What the film wisely does is allows changes in attitudes and perceptions, even the complications of the players’ natures be demonstrated visually. The journey thus has appropriate tones and more accurate humanity.

Whether in the bigger scope of the tale in the travails of Leon (Antoine L’Écuyer), the temporary inseparable companion in Lea (Catherine Faucher) or his older brother Jérôme who feels equally tired of, and responsible for, his brother and struggles with and against writing him off (Gabriel Maillé); the motivations and subtexts remain just that more often than not. Certain things are unspoken entirely and left for the audience to ferret out. In an otherwise straightforward film these enigmas would be bothersome, but in a film that asks for active participation from its viewers from the first frame; it’s welcome.

This all is not to say that story is cryptic or uninviting. To the contrary the events that occur and what the plot is are very easy to figure out and follow, if not necessarily predict. It’s just that the story goes places where a typical American production wouldn’t and isn’t broad or blunt about telling you what to think, what the characters feel and why. It shows you, but in a removed fashion.

A further testament to how well this film works is that the flow remains consistent and pleasurable despite it not having a conventional plot. When a film is outside the norm, even if its good, the pace can feel hinky; here there is a smooth natural progression to proceedings.

Yet even beneath all that superficial idiosyncrasy, the plot does flow neatly into three distinct sections. The events do trigger one another even if in unexpected ways. Its the subtle handling of performance, story and structure that lands this film with an odd sensibility, yet ultimately uplifting end; comfortably and enjoyably for the viewer.

7/10

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Year-End Dash: The Book Thief

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve not read The Book Thief. Now usually the read/unread status of book only bears mentioning when I have read it and am insulating myself from either some comments on fanboy-dom or adding a grain of salt. Here I mention it because this seems as if it was a tricky adaptation to pull of. I say that because there are some rather literary traits to the story that are far easier to execute in prose than onscreen. However, the film while not avoiding missteps in the adaptation of said traits does put it forth immediately. While that same approach is part of what gets in the way of the final impact of the film there is much felt throughout that is worth noting, and, ultimately recommending.

First and most noteworthy in the story are the five principal figures. I used that diction specifically to discuss both character and performance. For the engaging part of The Book Thief is the humanity it finds and expresses in its characters. Its signature piece of dialogue alludes to to that underlying truth. The zeitgeist in World War II films is to explore the gray area. Not that this film is specifically gray, but it does go somewhere many films don’t which is to deal with Germans who didn’t quite follow the party line in a number of small and significant ways.

To bring those thoughts and emotions to life, and to show them truly (even to show them in a conflicted manner and still engender empathy) is the grand task of this fine cast. Perhaps it’s symbolically apropos that they each call a different nation home and portray German characters (US, Canada, Australia, England and Germany respectively). Taking that fact into consideration they also blend seamlessly well with one another and handle the anglicized German dialect they’re given superbly. Sophie Nélisse in my estimation had her breakout role with Monsieur Lazhar; here however her role is larger still, more dialogue-driven and in accented English such that her feat is perhaps even more impressive and she’s well on her way to becoming a household name. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson play two diametrically opposed types and parents, but the end result and the emotions the engender and exude in the end must be the same making their characters fairly ideal dramatic foils if those inhabiting the roles deliver, which they do. Ben Schnetzer as Max has the task of being sickly much of the time, believably and naturally poetic and philosophical in the face of, and in tandem with his emotions. His performance is such that his presence lingers even when his image does not grace the screen. Last but not least there’s Nico Liersch who stands out as the revelation of this film for his well-rounded and sensitive portrayal of Rudy a character who pines for Liesel from the moment he is introduced but never comes across as a doormat in that or any other situation, as characters with that affectation can at times.

The Book Thief does eventually come through with very moving moments, and while doing so in a very populist manner does cause people to think and reflect on the varied reactions and actions of people during that era in history.

7/10

Children in Films Blogathon: A Revisionist Look at the Juvenile Award

When I learned of the Child Actor Blogathon at Comet Over Hollywood, I had two ideas for it almost right away: the Jackie Searl spotlight and this one. Not too long ago I argued for why the Juvenile Award should be re-instated. In this post I will follow up on that notion to augment my case. It’s one thing to quickly cite who won while it was around and state it never should have left, it’s quite another to show you who would have had they never gotten rid of it. Now I have decided to illustrate that in three ways, including some omissions found when it was instated (it’ll make more sense when we get there, trust me). First, I will list the young actors who since the end of the award (after 1961) were nominated for an Academy Award.

These actors obviously, had there still been a Juvenile Award, would have won that. While on occasion they were awarded the prize, more often than not they didn’t have a realistic chance. Regardless, their nomination was deemed prize enough it would seem, but I disagree and as you will see there have been plenty of instances where the Juvenile award could have been handed out either in addition to or in place of the nomination.

Based on Academy Award nominations from 1961-Present:

Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Fox Searchlight)

2012 Quvenzhané Wallis Beasts of the Southern Wild
2010 Hailee Steinfeld True Grit
2007 Saoirse Ronan Atonement
2006 Abigail Breslin Little Miss Sunshine
2002 Keisha Castle-Hughes Whale Rider
1999 Haley Joel Osment The Sixth Sense
1993 Anna Paquin The Piano
1979 Justin Henry Kramer vs. Kramer
1977 Quinn Cummings The Goodbye Girl
1976 Jodie Foster Taxi Driver
1973 Tatum O’ Neal Paper Moon
1968 Jack Wild Oliver!
1962 Patty Duke The Miracle Worker
Mary Badham To Kill a Mockingbird

Personal Selections

Super 8 (2011, Paramount)

In 1996, when I was 15 and the young actors of the day where my contemporaries, I started making my own award lists. Being young myself at the time I wanted to recognize young actors where most awards excluded them more often than not. These selections reflect those that were my among my BAM award selections that were eligible and the Academy bypassed. Prior to 1996, I thought of significant performances that were worthy of noting and would’ve had a strong case for the Juvenile Award had it been around.

2012 Rick Lens Kauwboy

This one is highly unlikely as Kauwboy wasn’t shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film prize. However, the fact that it was the official selection for The Netherlands did make it eligible.

My young actress choice last year, Sophie Nélisse, was a year off from the Oscar calendar but also a strong possibility for Monsieur Lazhar.

2011 Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Riley Giffiths Zach Mills, Gabe Basso Super 8

It figures that both the best young ensemble, and perhaps individual performance, of the past 25 years got overlooked. So they are all honored here.

2009 Bill Milner Is Anybody There?

2008 Bill Milner and Will Poulter Son of Rambow

A slight wrinkle here from my original selection. Since the Academy set precedent of awarding tandems, why not do so here as well?

2005 Dakota Fanning War of the Worlds

2004 Freddie Highmore Finding Neverland

My 2004 winner was one where I was awarding a film from 2003, due to my stand on release dates, which is different than the Academy’s. Having said that I then had to factor in both my nominees and who the Academy would be more likely to pick and decided if they chose anyone it would have been Highmore.

2003 Jeremy Sumpter Peter Pan

2001 Haley Joel Osment Artificial Intelligence: A.I.

2000 Haley Joel Osment Pay It Forward

1998 Vinicius de Oliveira Central Station

1997 Joseph Ashton The Education of Little Tree

Here’s another interesting case: my winner was in a TV film which the Academy would never honor. Then two more nominees were either shifted due to my interpretation of release date rules and one erroneously in my revisionist phase. That leaves two eligible: Dominic Zamprogna in The Boy’s Club and Joseph Ashton in The Education of Little Tree. Some people besides me actually saw the latter so I’d put that one up as a winner.

1996 Michelle Trachtenberg Harriet the Spy
Lucas Black Sling Blade

Michelle was my actual winner in 1996. Sling Blade in my awards was shifted to 1997 due to its release date. It being an Oscar nominated film make it a more likely retrospective candidate.

My Girl (1991, Columbia Pictures)

This section marks personal selections prior to my picking extemporaneous year-end awards.

1994 Elijah Wood The War

I recall watching E! and hearing there was some buzz being stirred by the cast/studio for Elijah. I knew it would never happen, but it was deserved buzz.

1992 Maxime Collin Leolo

I have since expunged them but for a time I did backtrack BAM Award to back before they started. Some of these picks reflect those findings.

1991 Anna Chlumsky My Girl

1990 Macaulay Culkin Home Alone

Say what you will, but you know if the award was around that this would have happened.

1988 Pelle Hvengaard Pelle the Conqueror

1987 Christian Bale Empire of the Sun

1986 River Phoenix Stand by Me

1983 Bertil Guve Fanny and Alexander

1982 Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

1979 Ricky Schroeder The Champ
David Bennent The Tin Drum

1972 Nell Potts The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Who Should Have Gotten One But Didn’t

No Greater Glory (1934, Columbia Pictures)

I honestly almost scrapped this section. However, looking back through young nominees I noticed the discrepancy that some young nominees did not get a Juvenile Award while there was one. So I figured while I was at it I’d list a few notable performances that didn’t get recognized. Those that “didn’t need one” since they were nominated as in their respective categories against adult competition have denoted those with an asterisk.

1956 Patty McCormack The Bad Seed*
1953 Brandon deWilde Shane*
1952 Georges Poujouly Forbidden Games
1941 Roddy McDowall How Green Was My Valley
1936 Freddie Bartholomew Little Lord Fauntleroy
1934 George Breakston No Greater Glory
1931 Jackie Cooper Skippy*

BAM Award Winners: Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Leading Role

This is a newly-siphoned off post from the original Young Actors post. This category came into being in the 2011 BAM Awards as part of the start of the diversification of the Youth Categories. This division of the category was necessary because while there were female winners, most of the time that was not the case and even nominations were hard to come by. This year’s nominees not only validated this decision, while hard to find as many titles the quality was high, the Supporting categories, which was a gamble, also provided great candidates.

2018 Elsie Fisher Eighth Grade

2017 Sophia Lillis It

2016 Madison Wolfe The Conjuring 2

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2015 Olivia Dejonge The Visit

The Visit (2015, Universal)

2014 Giulia Salerno Misunderstood

Misunderstood (2014, Good Films)

2013 Lika Babulani In Bloom

In Bloom (2013, Big World Pictures)

2012 Sophie Nélisse Monsieur Lazhar

Monsieur Lazhar (2011, Music Box Films)

2011 Elle Fanning Super 8

Review- Monsieur Lazhar

As I’ve discussed on a couple of occasions is that we have a pre-life with Monsieur Lazhar there were a few things I knew about it. I first heard of it on its road to the Oscars as Canada’s entry into the foreign language film race and its eventual nomination. Based on its premise I knew it was something that would interest me. Later on came pieces about director Phillipe Faladreau and working with a young cast and in one of them came the revelation that the screenplay was extrapolated from a one-character play, I knew it was a must-see for me.

What makes this film the most interesting is the way that it cuts and structures itself. We follow these characters coming into a difficult situation throughout the course of much of a school year. The film accomplishes this by not letting scenes run too long and giving us small but sufficient glimpses into the day-to-day interactions he has with his students.

This approach benefits the film in so many ways: it allows the children’s characters to slowly build such that we get a sense not only who the two main kids, who are the fulcrums of the drama in this tale, who grieve most for the lost of their former teacher at her own hand, for very different reasons; but also several other children in the class. The fact that there aren’t long, revelatory dialogue scenes means the physicality these children display has to be exceptional. We have to read their emotions on their face rather than getting overly overt indicators from their words and we do see that.

Yet in the development of Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) this structure is also beneficial. One of the most fascinating things about the film is that you see a character operating in a two different arenas: his personal and private lives. Never the tween shall meet but they are of equal importance. It’s truly a tremendously ingenious approach.

Perhaps what is most brilliant about the film is the way in which fables, and the writing thereof, become integral in the film toward the end but also the film plays as one. The school the film is set in is deeply wounded by this inexplicable and shocking suicide and in comes this mysterious stranger, like a benevolent pied piper to heal them all.

The genesis of this film was a one-character play so clearly finding that character for your film will be incredibly important, that is the directorial and performance challenge of the film, whereas the screenwriting challenge is expanding that world outward. Fellag is absolutely perfect in this film. He truly plays the film with incredible adroitness. Having an actor’s face be new to you can be refreshing for the viewer, however, the performance in is regard is truly all there. He carries himself as a set in his ways, firm but fair, affable teacher- the kind that if we had one we were lucky- throughout the classroom scenes in spite of inherent early nervousness.

Yet what is in many ways a schoolroom drama cannot be complete without the children being equal to the task, for as characters they are certainly not secondary or afterthoughts, and their performances rise to the challenge. First, there’s Sophie Nélisse who carries herself with the grace and poise of veteran who has charms and inherent talent in abundance. I haven’t seen the likes of her since Anna Chlumsky burst on to the scene in My Girl. For those of you scoring at home, that was 21 years ago. Émilien Néron has no easy task himself. He is a simmering cauldron waiting to boil over through a majority of the film. He has a huge revelatory scene, and as I mentioned before physicality matters and his revelations color all those scenes differently in hindsight. However, it’s also a scene that’s emotionally draining one that absolutely has to be nailed and it is. Going down the line you also have mostly humorous turns from Seddik Benslimane, who speaking Arabic himself has his own inside jokes with Monsieur Lazhar (And I love how they weren’t translated) and Vincent Millard. There’s also Marie-Ève Beauregard playing the role of a stickler to a tee. It’s practically the epitome of a youth ensemble as quite a few of the other students have their own moments.

Monsieur Lazhar not only gets you to invest in the lives of this teacher and his student but it incrementally builds and pushes your buttons at the right time. Its ending is absolutely perfect, which is a big deal to me but the journey was very enjoyable as well. It is a moving and affecting film that will surely win admirers for years to come.

9/10