Stella (Sylvie Verheyde, 2009): France

Reviewed by Byron Potau.  Viewed at the Billy Wilder Theatre as part of the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.

Writer/director Sylvie Verheyde’s autobiographical Stella is the film so many films like it wish they could be.  Told from the point of view of its young protagonist, it is direct, honest, and completely unpretentious, not once giving us a false moment.

Set in 1977 Paris, eleven year-old Stella (Leora Barbara) is attending her first day at a new school that usually caters to richer and more privileged kids than herself.  She is an outcast from the start, returning home with a black eye after she spits in the face of a boy who tries to take her soccer ball.  Her clothes are not cool enough, and the professors are prone to flying into rages during which they dump out students’ belongings onto the floor, or even throwing them out of the window in their frustration.  Stella is content to keep to herself in the beginning, until she makes friends with Gladys (Melissa Rodriguez), the smartest girl in the class.  Stella’s other childhood friend is Genevieve (Laetitia Guerard) whom she sees when she visits with her grandma. 

At home Stella is in a grown up world.  Her parents Roselyne (Karole Rocher) and Serge (Benjamin Biolay) own a café/bar, and Stella is very friendly with several of the customers who, despite being mostly lower class alcoholics, are respectable people in their way.  However, some of the regulars are a bit unsavory, and Stella is witness to drunken brawls and her mother’s infidelities which cause a lot of tension between her parents.  Stella struggles at her new school and against the lifestyle she has grown accustomed to, but is able to make adjustments along the way that will help her eventually turn things around for her.

Verheyde’s film is very good about staying away from clichés.  Stella’s parents are not the typical obstacle to her advancement that parental characters usually are in this type of film.  They have their problems with each other and they are flawed in several ways, but they want the best for Stella and show her as much love and attention as parents can be expected to.

The pacing of the film is steady as events unfold gradually, which works extremely well in showing Stella in her everyday life.  At no time does the viewer ever get the feeling that the filmmakers are trying to think of things for Stella to do or that any of the scenes are filler.  In fact, with Nicolas Gaurin’s cinematography with its dulled colors, Christel Dewynter’s editing, and the naturalness of the performances, which are all excellent, the film achieves a seventies feel and verite style that adds to the film’s realism. 
 
While every performance is excellent, Leora Barbara and Laetitia Guerard are particularly stunning as the precociously streetwise Stella and her friend Genevieve.  Verheyde shows a real talent for working with children as there is an honesty and naturalness to the children’s scenes–whether it is the girls playing together, or at a birthday party and dance, or having awkward moments with boys, every scene is played just right.

Right down to the music by Nousdeux, Verheyde seems makes all the right choices, culminating in a very sensitive and realistic film that should not be missed.

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