With a Little Help From Myself

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Rome International Film Festival

ROME — French director Francois Dupreyon (“Monsieur Ibrahim”) has made an intelligent and unapologetically optimistic ode to joy set in the site of some of the roughest political and social struggles in Europe today — the Parisian projects, where poor blacks and immigrants from the world over live in daily tension alongside poor white residents.

The perfectly cast “With a Little Help From Myself” is bound to be a festival hit. (It received a standing ovation at Rome). Ironically, despite its infectious political incorrectness (in which much of its sharp humor lies), the fact that it centers on a poor black family will give the film PC credence for perhaps wider international theatrical play.

A lot is happening the day we meet Sonia (Felicite Wouassi, who is a gift to watch), working-class wife and mother of four, in the middle of a terrible heat wave. Her son is arrested for drug dealing. Her eldest daughter is getting married. Her abusive gambler of a husband dies, and her younger daughter harbors a further surprise. But whenever a problem arises, the invincible Sonia clings to her mantra that a solution always exists.

What begins as a seemingly bleak social melodrama then deliciously takes its time to unfold into a compassionate, witty story teeming with life despite the characters’ hardships. When Sonia gets unexpected advice from her white neighbor and client Robert (Claude Rich, in the film’s other faultless performance), Dupreyon pulls off the near-impossible feat of being over-the-top without being gratuitous or silly.

Working herself to the bone taking care of elderly people such as Robert and running a laundromat, Sonia wants to ensure better futures for her children, who risk squandering what little they have on the streets. Her children are the mouthpieces for France’s disenfranchised minorities yet the director is not interested in making a “thesis” film.

Instead, the social and political issues, while never facile, are the backdrop that make the director’s portrait of a middle-aged flower blooming in this concrete jungle that much more moving and nuanced. Wouassi’s Sonia is simultaneously strong, vulnerable, worn out by life and timidly yearning to embrace it. She also revives the reclusive Robert, who realizes too late how little of the world he has experienced. Their relationship culminates in a scene that is once painfully uncomfortable and heart wrenching.

Jean-Jacques I do and Mata Gabin as Sonia’s love interest and best friend, respectively, also stand out.

The film’s look is rough and grainy, the natural lighting at times subsequently a little washed out, and it is fairly obvious that Dupreyon improvised with the cast. Yet there is masterly control in his loose style. The camera, which sometimes swings wildly within shots, at various angles, is nevertheless always in the right place at the right time to capture the film’s many subtleties.

Production companies: ARP Selection.
Cast: Felicite Wouassi, Claude Rich, Elisabeth Oppong, Ralpha Amoussou, Charles-Etienne N’Diaye, Jean-Jacques Ido, Mata Gabin.
Director/screenwriter: Francois Dupeyron.
Producer: Michele Petin, Laurent Petin.
Director of photography: Yves Angelo.
Production designer: Patrick Durand.
Costume designer: Catherine Bouchard.
Editor: Dominique Faysse.
Sales Agent: Kinology.
No rating, 91 minutes. 

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