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  • Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

Léonor Serraille’s second feature film, the tender and moving Mother and Son (more aptly titled Un petit frère in French) focuses on a family of Ivorian immigrants in France over the course of 20-odd years. Rose, the mother—played with arresting dynamism and resourcefulness by Annabelle Lengronne—is still young and has a rebellious streak, leading her to squabble with the relatives hosting her and her young sons, Jean and Ernest, and to reject a highly suitable romantic prospect, the amusingly named Jules César. When Rose, who has taken a job working as a room maid in a hotel, embarks on an affair with a married man, she moves Jean and Ernest to Rouen with her, leaving Jean to look after his younger brother during the week and returning from the capital at weekends. Here, the future that Rose has been so careful to carve out for her sons, and the family bond they share, based on impeccable manners and unquestioning hard work, look set to implode.

The film is essentially divided into three character-based chapters, with Rose leading the film’s first section, followed by Jean, as he grows from a little boy at the beginning to a teenager in Rouen, and finally Ernest. Rose’s segment at the start of the film is perhaps the most successful of the three: we are offered a remarkably rich portrait of this confused and stubborn young woman, who is constitutionally unable to abide by any of the rules that she sets out for her sons (“Never cry”, for instance). Rose’s ready intelligence and sexual freedom put her at odds with her surroundings; we thrill to her energy, and yet we see what a poor example she sets for her children, even while being a fine parent in other regards. The nuanced script sets Rose up for a journey into ever more obstinacy, showing how she cannot be a master of her own fate, and how the consequences of her decisions will ripple through the years.

Serraille’s writing in this opening section, as elsewhere in this film, is exemplary. In her debut, Jeune Femme, the writer-director had shown a keen eye for comedy of manners with attitude and a barking wit; here, she adds a great gentleness of vision to those qualities. Mother and Son has some very funny moments (foremost, an extraordinary sequence in which Rose attends a work day hosted by the idiotic white owner of the chain of hotels that employs her, which ends in hilariously debauched fashion), but these are always leavened by a fairly mild and loving worldview, devoid of judgement. Rather, Serraille placidly lays out her story, only really showing anger in a sequence in Ernest’s segment when, as a young man, he is racially profiled by police officers.

Jean’s segment—led by Stéphane Bak, rather touching as the tentative, do-good older brother—sees the teenager gradually fighting back against the pressure and expectations placed on him by Rose. There is perhaps a little more recourse on Serraille’s part to drama in this chapter, but the clearsighted viewpoint remains; she is abetted in this by fine, unshowy lensing by Hélène Louvart, who nevertheless lets rip in a stunning sequence in which Jean, the erstwhile good boy, surrenders to a more animal side while dancing in a nightclub. Filmed in a spellbinding long take drenched in hot neon blues, Bak gyrates feverishly, signifying his character’s painful transition.

Ernest’s chapter picks up the slack, following the oddly innocent younger brother in his charmed, somehow protected existence: things are easier for him, as they are for all younger siblings, making this last section perhaps a touch less powerful. Nevertheless, Serraille’s gift for observation is most evident here, producing stretches of immense charm, or—as when Ernest reconnects with Rose—of great sorrow.

Mother and Son is a deceptively simple family fresco, told with a fairly novelistic classicism. But within this framework, Serraille seems to tell the whole story of France, of its immigration; seems, too, to pierce right to the heart of these lives (which, since she is white, was not a given). There is a deeply lovable looseness here in Serraille’s writing and tone, evident in the natural performances she coaxes from her cast, and the bursts of wit in her dialogue gild and offset what could otherwise be a story of truly unbearable poignancy. The film closes on a dedication, to a certain Pacôme—a loved one whose lived experience, you feel, must have closely informed this strikingly detailed generational drama.