It shouldn’t have to be this way, but the summer movie-going season is generally known far more for big, bombastic spectacles than for smart, affecting character-based films. That’s not a knock on blockbusters as there were actually quite a few good ones in theaters the past few months, but it’s more an unfortunate commentary on how the smaller films are often lost in the shuffle of May to July if they’re even released at all. But August is the month where explosions and CGI slowly give way to dialogue and character, and it’s here where an intimate look at life, death, and defying expectations just might find the audience it deserves.
Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) has had enough. She’s only eleven years old, but she’s already had her fill of life’s absurdities thanks to a family that annoys far more than they enrich. Her mother (Anne Brochet) is happily celebrating ten years of therapy (and the subsequent stream of anti-depressants), her father (Wladimir Yordanoff) moves seamlessly between being flustered and disinterested, and her older sister (Sarah Lepicard) is doing her best to make her little sister’s life miserable.
The building’s concierge/janitor, Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko), is a frumpy-looking woman who has very little patience for the bullshit emanating from her wealthy tenants. She’s a tool to them and nothing more, and while they most likely wouldn’t be able to pick her out of a lineup she’s actually harboring a rich interior life that she shares with no one. She finds an odd friendship with Paloma, and with the young girl’s encouragement she may just find a lot more.
“I’ve made my mind up. At the end of the year, the day I turn twelve, on June 16th next, in 165 days, I’ll kill myself.”
Paloma has her mind set on suicide and is counting down the days until she’ll swallow dozens of pills pilfered from her mother over the past couple months. She’s filming it all on a hand me down 8mm camera to record life’s mundane travesties and document her reasons. It’s more of an intellectual reaction to the world around her than an emotional one. A dinner party sees her sitting alone and quiet surrounded by chatty adults, and when she does chime in to correct one of them her dad sends her to her room. She’s simply bored by those around her, but as her end approaches she truly meets Renée for the first time and the two find mutual inspiration in each other.
The third player here is a newcomer to the building named Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa). He takes an immediate liking to Paloma and Renée, but his romantic attention towards the latter is an unfamiliar feeling for the woman. Even if she did recognize it can she possibly deserve it? The expectation here would be for Paloma to transform the poorly dressed grump into a new woman to aid in her new romance, but this is not a film interested in delivering the expected relationships.
Director Mona Achache wrote the script from the bestselling novel by Muriel Barbery, and she’s managed to maintain character depth across all three lead roles while still keeping a breezy and engaging pace. The story’s setup implies a certain denouement for the characters, but the film avoids the expected and forges a fresh trail through some very human terrain. Her film’s tone and atmosphere are matched with a delightful score from Gabriel Yared. It’s playful but fills the ears with energy and emotion when necessary.
All of the actors deliver capable performances, but it’s Guillermic and Balasko who shine in their oddball roles. Balasko finds her character’s balance between a prickly exterior and a soft, hopeful heart, and Guillermic is equally as good at displaying an intellect and awareness of a future she wants no part of. Her face is pale and serious, but her wild mane of blonde her belies the child within. She observes the world as unfair, as when her mother greets Renée at the door before rushing out and closing it behind her. “Don’t let the cat out,” Paloma narrates over her filming. “Don’t let the janitor in.” But she also childishly mimes hari-kari, jumping to her death, and sudden heart failure as practice for the inevitable. Her imagination is forefront in her play, her art, and in a small number of drawings that find a life of their own, and Guillermic makes you believe this young girl fully capable of it all.
The Hedgehog is a sweet and humorous tale that finds love and hope in the unexpected while still taking time to comment on the gap between classes. Strong acting, a light directorial touch, a whimsical score, and a message about friendship and love make this a film worth seeking out and embracing. You’re never too old or too young to find purpose in life… you just have to be willing to knock on the right door.
The Upside: Fantastic performances from Garance Le Guillermic and Josiane Balasko; humorous and affecting; story winds up in some unexpected places
The Downside: Some viewers may take issue with the ending and deem it unnecessary
The Hedgehog opens in limited theatrical release on August 19th.