La Mif, 2021.
Written and directed by Fred Baillif.
Starring Claudia Grob, Amélie Tonsi, Anaïs Uldry, Amandine Golay, Kassia Da Costa, Joyce Ndayisenga, Charlie Areddy, and Sara Tulu.
A group of teenage girls have been placed in a residential care home with social workers. This forced “family” experience creates unexpected tensions and intimacies. An incident triggers a chain of over-reactions.
The sprawling ensemble tableau drama – in which a series of seemingly disparate stories interconnect like a jigsaw puzzle – has been thoroughly worn out by Hollywood, but centered around a smaller, more close-knit group as it is here, it hits a little differently.
While it’s still hard to say that the presentational conceit is “necessary” to tell this story, what’s never in doubt is the authenticity of vision brought to the fore by filmmaker Fred Baillif, whose previous career as a social worker lends considerable weight to this devastating peek inside a Swiss residential care home.
Split across eight chapters, La Mif examines the experiences of seven teenage girls living in the home as well as those of the home’s manager, Lora (Claudia Grob). The “gimmick” is that each new chapter reveals crucial context of the overall picture obfuscated by the previous one, gradually unfurling layers of trauma and discord that explain their frequently hostile interactions with one another.
The story kicks off with one of the girls, Audrey (Anaïs Uldry), being removed from the home by the police, the cause of which is revealed moments later in the film’s opening chapter, and is the primary motivation for the home being transformed into a girls-only facility at the behest of its all-powerful board members.
From there we meet the boisterous Novinha (Kassia Da Costa), whose mother couldn’t seem much less interested in her; Précieuse (Joyce Esther Ndayisenga), who has been separated from her mentally unfit and abusive parents; Justine (Charlie Areddy), tortured by a deeply traumatic accident she caused at home; Tamra (Sara Tulu), an of-age asylum seeker; and troubled lovers Alison (Amélie Tonsi) and Caroline (Amandine Golay). And then there’s manager Lora, who is working through her own personal devastation while trying to protect the girls from the outside world, each other, and ultimately even themselves.
The many comings and goings through the home certainly provide enough trenchant drama that it’s tough to feel like the nested, compartmentalised format really adds all that much. Do mini-plot twists really need to be made out of the various revelations on offer? Something this sober and discomforting absolutely doesn’t require any formal sleights of hand.
Despite this, the film’s moment-to-moment effectiveness is high, juxtaposing the immensity of trauma against the complexities of the home’s staff trying to keep everything in order. There are so many jostling interests at play – especially with the young girls being of varying ages and degrees of emotional maturity – that conflict is inevitable, exacerbated by the aforementioned board members’ vice grip over the staff’s conduct.
If it’s really only Lora who has an A-to-Z arc by film’s end, that at least seems to be much the point; these young girls are still embryonic works-in-progress, left figuring out what their future holds when this snapshot of their lives rolls to a close. Audiences are sure to wonder what becomes of the girls afterwards, their lingering impact largely a credit to the astonishingly lived-in performances of the entire ensemble. However it’s Claudia Grob, incredibly a first-time screen actress, whose turn as the grief-stricken Lora truly lends the film its soul.
The film’s eighth and final chapter, entitled simply “La Mif” and focusing on the “fam” as a whole, is effectively an avalanche of reveals and generally unpleasant incidents, including a savagely brutal confrontation between one of the girls and Lora. For a time it almost feels like too much for the audience to stomach, for while these realities are clearly informed by the filmmaker’s own experiences in the field, strung together as a collage of horrific events, they seem almost perfunctory.
But again, the striking intimacy of Baillif’s work most often wins out; DP Joseph Areddy’s roving camera coverage captures the abject chaos of the group home environment, giving the sense that we’re intruding upon events that would be unfolding whether the camera were there or not. Less convincing is the periodic, puzzling inclusion of calming classical music over fraught moments in the home; if not unintentionally comical, it’s certainly odd.
So painfully bleak that it almost enters wallowing misery porn territory, La Mif is brought back from the brink by its remarkable ensemble cast.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.