Film Review: Petite Nature

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Film Review: Petite Nature
One of the things that makes Aliocha Reinert’s performance in Petite Nature so remarkable is that his face seems to contain the ostensible limitations of his character, 10-year-old Johnny: his slightly hangdog eyes and mouth evoke a poor boy destined for lower-class oblivion. But the twinkle that pops magically into those eyes, and the warm smile that blooms like a flower, give hints of more. He also has a subtle way of giving banal movements a grace that promises future mastery of some sort. A head of long blonde hair tops it off, expressing a sense of freedom, like a wild mustang’s mane, although it seems out of place in the hard-bitten world of the HLM (habitation à loyer modéré: low-rent housing) that is the film’s setting. Aliocha might be one of those kid actors who make an impression out of natural charisma, only to go nowhere when adolescence sets in. Or he might turn out to be like the child actress who made such an impact on child me as Joey in the sitcom Courtship of Eddy’s Father, and later became adult actress Jodie Foster. In the meantime, his stunning interpretation of Johnny is what carries Samuel Theis’s second feature. Petite Nature is more or less une tranche de vie, a slice of life. It’s fascinating to observe this young boy get on with his life, tend to his wreck of a mother, and take care of a younger sister to boot. The film resembles the “human interest” social films of Ken Loach or Luc Dardenne, but more broadly Theis takes us into a part of Lorraine, in eastern France, that many don’t know (or care about). It’s near the German border, and the mother, Sonia, like others in the area, works in Germany, as a cashier in a cigarette shop. Many speak Plattdeutsch, the thicker, looser dialect of German. The biggest town is Metz, where you have not only institutions of higher learning (my son attended an engineering school there) but also a branch of the Pompidou Center. The director shows us how the Metz center brings culture to the region and also attracts educated types who then ironically contribute to the class divide. Theis directs with impressive assurance — much of that is due to the fact that he’s from the region; even so it’s hard to believe Petite Nature is his second feature. But then the film lurches from tranche de vie to what the French call misérabilisme, wallowing in poverty. Sonia has to survive as a single mother in a forbidding HLM on a small salary. But why is the apartment such a pig sty? Sonia is poor and rough around the edges, but she does have a job, is presumably subject to German rigor, and has her son to help out. Such residences are often ramshackle, but the family flat looks too much like a production designer’s dump. Likewise, the bit players depicting Sonia’s friends seem to be theatrically performing their version of po’ folk. A still from “Petite Nature” showing actors Aliocha Reinert and Mélissa Olexa As Sonia, Mélissa Olexa is attractive and intense, and on a certain level very authentic. Considering that she’s a non-professional originally from Metz, she’s almost as astonishingly impressive as Aliocha. But I was troubled by her performance. That’s just it: as with the secondary roles, she seems too performative, a bit like Marion Cotillard when she belts out her roles. I’ve known persons like Sonia, and while they can be primeval forces of nature in extreme situations, they’re not always that way. There’s emotional downtime, when they’re as normal as anyone else. Even Sonia’s downtime, as when she’s having her tired feet massaged by Johnny, seems performative.
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Lead photo credit : Petite Nature. © 2021/ Semaine de la Critique

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Dimitri Keramitas was born and raised in Connecticut, USA, and was educated at the University of Hartford, Sorbonne, and the University of London, and holds degrees in literature and law. He has lived in Paris for years, and directs a training company and translation agency. In addition, he has worked as a film critic for both print and on-line publications, including Bonjour Paris and France Today. He is a contributing editor to Movies in American History. In addition he is an award-winning writer of fiction, whose stories have been published in many literary journals. He is the director of the creative writing program at WICE, a Paris-based organization. He is also a director at the Paris Alumni Network, an organization linking together several hundred professionals, and is the editor of its newletter. The father of two children, Dimitri not only enjoys Paris living but returning to the US regularly and traveling in Europe and elsewhere.