I first noticed director Lea Pool with her 1999 feature Set Me Free, about a girl on the edge of adulthood. Pool’s ability to portray and work with adolescents was powerful. So when I heard her latest film, My Mom’s at the Hairdresser, also dealt with children, I slotted it into my schedule. I’m glad I did, as she again obtains wonderfully naturalistic performances from her trio of stars.
In this case, the characters are three siblings — the oldest Elise, middle Coco (a boy), and youngest Benoit — starting summer in idyllic Quebec in 1966. Elise jumps off the school bus barefoot, ready to get going, Coco has plans to build his own go-cart, and Benoit ... well, Benoit is asking a lot of questions at the age of 5 or 6. The first third of the film is wonderfully comical, as Pool, working from a novel by Isabelle Hebert, captures how children play and interact. But the movie also realizes that children understand more than we give them credit for, that they watch adults and learn, in both good ways and bad.
As the film moves into more dramatic territory, it keeps things light with a string of hilarious and poignant scenes: children stuck in a closet while two adults have sex, Elise learning to fish by a river. The movie gets a bit too cute in places, such as twin girls talking in unison, but Pool understands the nostalgia she’s creating, especially in her brilliant use of radiant summer light. If that nostalgia makes it difficult for her to pull off a compelling ending, My Mom’s at the Hairdresser is still a satisfying contribution to the world of movies about kids.
Equally satisfying and funny is Agnes Varda’s latest whimsy, The Beaches of Agnes. An autobiographical documentary (or maybe an essay film, depending on how you categorize those things), it continues what Varda has been doing in Gleaners and I and Cinevardaphoto. The movie opens with a fantastic scene on a beach with mirrors, and it includes a beach delightfully created in the middle of a city street.
Most of the movie, though, tracks Varda’s development into a woman immersed in cinema, often by pairing her life story with examples from her film work. I found the first two-thirds of the film hilarious and insightful, in the way that only Varda can be. But as the movie entered the home stretch, I became a little bored. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m less interested in the post-‘60s time period or whether the material starts to lose its charm. Nonetheless, this is another vital work from a woman whose perspective on movies is always welcome.
Not as welcome and definitely not as funny, Salamandra is a loathsome debut from Argentinean director Pablo Aguero. He introduced the movie with three simple words: Enjoy ... or Suffer. And suffer I did. The film is a child’s-eye view on Argentina after the “Dirty War.” Inti’s mom has been released from jail but not the prison inside her head. So she claims Inti from grandma and heads for the craziest hippie commune in the south.
Aguero establishes a mood of dread that made me think we had entered Haneke territory. But Aguero doesn’t have the chops to pull that off, so he relies on a whole litany of transgressive provocations. I knew I couldn’t trust the movie when early on an animal is killed on screen for absolutely no reason, and things go downhill from there. It’s also deeply unsettling to watch the young actor (who can’t be more than six or seven years old) put into dangerous adult situations. At one point, he’s in a shower with a naked woman. At another point, someone pushes him around and spits in his face. I get the sense that Aguero just thought he’d poke a finger in the audience’s eye and giggle about it. I would’ve booed at the end, but I figured that’s what he wanted, and I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
As I write this, the festival has come to an end. But look for my final couple days of TIFF coverage in the week to come. And Rob should be around on Monday with his own perspective, so look forward to that.