Heaven Will Wait

Heaven Will Wait (Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, 2016)

heaven-will-wait

Heaven Will Wait is a terribly uneven and messy film.  Intertwining three to four storylines, Heaven Will Wait attempts to fully depict the environment in France which creates youth terrorists.  Unfortunately, it attempted far more than it could succeed at and what’s left are a handful of disjoint stories of wildly varied quality dependent solely on the actresses’ ability to salvage each respective piece.

The primary focus of the film was on two juxtaposed teen girls. Sonia, Noémie Merlant, attempted to fly to Syria to be a martyr for Islam, but was stopped.  After that, she’s arrested for conspiring with terrorists and is placed under house arrest.  Her story in the film picks up here as she and her parents struggle with her as she attempts to deprogram the terrorist doctrine that had been ingrained in her.  Mélanie, Naomi Amarger, on the other hand is a traditional student, who seemingly gets good grades and is an accomplished cellist.  After her Grandmother dies though, she searching for meaning is coerced into the world of a violent sect of Islam.  The additional storylines receive significantly less development and screen time and include an older woman, Sylvie, who seems to be struggling with her past associations with ISIS (though to be honest, the development of her story was so poor that I couldn’t say I really know what was going on).  Finally, the film frequently checked in with a support group for parents of children who became involved in terrorism.  It’s unclear whether this final section constitutes its own storyline or not as this was where the additional plots feigned some sort of connectivity.

Due to this lack of real connectivity, Heaven Will Wait seems more like a handful of vignettes thrown in a blender than a cohesive whole.  At very minimum throwing out the Sylvie plot line would have allowed us to focus solely on the recruitment practices and aftermath on young women.  Instead it became very clear that director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar bit off far more than she could chew, and the film suffers for it.  When examining Mélanie’s plot line in particular, she was given so little development as a character that the entire story came off as forced and fabricated.  ACTRESS is not truly to blame for this dissonance, though I have to assume a stronger performance couldn’t have hurt, but she was given very little to work with.  She goes from happy and content to sad and mournful to suddenly a devote Muslim who is ready to travel to Syria with a complete lack of development in between.  There may be a story worth telling here, but this film has no interest in actually telling it.

Noémie Merlant, on the other hand, puts in such a strong performance as Sonia, that even the lack of time and under writing leaves her story believable and engaging.  I sympathize over the struggles that she’s dealing with as she detoxes from her experiences.  Her father’s demonization of all of Islam instead of the sect that lead her to her beliefs seems instinctual, and her response to not being even allowed the religion that brought her initial comfort is heartbreaking.  It’s this performance and story that leaves me unable to issue a blanket dissuasion of the entire film.  Instead I can only long for the film that would have been if Noémie Merlant was given the full time to explore Sonia.

Divines

Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016)

divines

Centered around the rebellious teenager Dounia, Oulaya Amamra, Divines tells a coming of age story of a rebellious teenager as she tries to find her path to both adulthood and early wealth.  Coming of age stories about women are always welcome, as men seem to dominate the genre, and this one specifically sets out to prove its uniqueness by blending the traditional coming of age drama with a plentiful helping of melodrama.  While this mixture isn’t quite as smooth as I would have preferred, the result is something unique that has continued to capture my thoughts even after viewing more films.

We are first introduced to Dounia as she distracts her best friend Maimouna, Déborah Lukumuena, from her prayers at a make-shift mosque.  Her rebelliousness is further portrayed as we watch her shoplift, and get kicked out of school in subsequent scenes.  We do get a potential reason for this behavior soon after as we are shown a scene of her and her drunken mother being fired from the bar that they both work at, and then proceed home to the slum they live in.  This opening is, unfortunately, the weakest part of the film, and highlights the director Houda Benyamina’s relative inexperience.  The first twenty minutes feel like an afterthought as if the rest of the story was already written and filmed but some sort of establishment needed to be included to bring believability to the characters.  An additional ten minutes to let the characters develop slightly more organically would not have been a begrudged addition to the only 90-minute film.

If Benyamina was dead set on keeping the film at 90 minutes, there is at least one additional plotline that fell flat.  Throughout the film, Dounia has frequent scenes where she watches, in an eerily stalkerish way, grocery security guide/ aspiring dancer Djigui, Kevin Mishel, as he attempts to get the lead role in a local dance performance.  After weeks of voyeurism, Dounia is confronted by Djigui and is eventually thrown into an awkward pseudo relationship.  While I do believe that the watching and lusting over the male body constitutes an important level of character development for Dounia, the budding/ seemingly serious relationship seemed unnecessary and very sudden.

Weaknesses aside, Divines develops into a beautiful melodrama.  Dounia’s interactions with Rebecca, Jisca Kalvanda, feel like an extremely genuine predator prey relationship.  Dounia wants so badly to be an adult and find the fortune that she couldn’t hope to attain otherwise, that she deludes herself in fantasies of what her future will be while committing crimes for Rebecca.  And Rebecca completely believably see’s Dounia’s passion and obedience and quickly finds the way in which she can best take advantage of the situation.  The result is that Dounia does quickly grow up, though not in the way that she necessarily envisioned.

And that highlights what really is the strength of the film.  Amamra’s portrayal of Dounia is engrossing.  No matter how poor decisions she makes, I manage to feel both sympathetic to her while still understanding why she made the decisions that she did.  It’s rare that you can watch a film where the protagonist makes bad decision after bad decision and yet still sympathize for her.  The realness behind Dounia has me forgiving most if not all of Divines’s flaws.

My First TIFF

I know that I haven’t written anything in months.  Life has taken its toll on me as I’ve attempted to find my new life post transition.  Things still aren’t really settling down, but there’s nothing like attending a major film festival to reinvigorate your passion for the craft.  And so here I am, thousands of miles from home, in a foreign country leaving me completely dependent on free Wi-Fi as I don’t have international phone service with nothing to do but watch films, eat, and hopefully write.

Signing up for TIFF was an interesting experience.  The only film festival that I’ve done in earnest before was SXSW in which I’ve just purchased a badge and gone to as many films as I wanted only being turned away once in my two years in attendance.  For TIFF on the other hand, I purchased what made sense to me, a 20 film package for the 7 days that I would be in Toronto.  Days before I was allowed to register for films, I set up what my perfect schedule would look like and assumed that everything would work for me.  Not one minute after my registration window was open, I was on the website and realized that the majority of my high priority viewings were already booked.  Unfortunately, this week will not include my chance to view Toni Erdman, Elle, Personal Shopper, Certain Women, The Handmaiden, American Honey, La La Land, or Manchester by the Sea, but I’m still seeing many high priority films on my list as well as letting myself find some hidden gems.

And so with this, all I have left to say is that I’m excited to be back.