Childhoods -- Film Review

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From scholarly treatises to pop culture musings, there have been countless homages to such giants of cinema as Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman. In the inspired "Childhoods," seven young filmmakers pay tribute to that trio and their fellow auteurs Fritz Lang, Jacques Tati and Orson Welles.

Anyone can enjoy the burnished shorts they've created, but cinephiles in particular will spark to this imaginative puzzle of a film. Sure to be a fest favorite, the feature received its West Coast premiere at the recent City of Lights, City of Angels festival of French film in Los Angeles.

A unifying idea runs through the compilation, which was conceived and written by Yann Le Gal, who also directs one of the half-dozen segments. At the heart of his proposition is the notion that an artist's awakening can be encapsulated in a key childhood moment. The pieces, which play out with varying success, don't name the filmmakers-to-be during their running time, but each is capped with an identifying onscreen quote by its subject -- provoking surprised "ahs" and knowing "mmms." The payoff of these miniatures rests in those quotes, but the identities of some of the boys, all of whom are about 10 or 12, are easily guessed before the telltale title appears.

The most fully realized segment concerns a gangly schoolboy who doesn't fit neatly into the class photo. Playful and sly, the delightful comic piece, directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, is thoroughly original and thoroughly in tune with the work of its subject. The other sequences, not without humor, tend toward more obvious dramatic turning points: A family revelation turns a boy's beliefs about love and purity on their head, a son's magical thinking keeps him by his mother's sickbed, a privileged youngster's world expands through an unexpected friendship, and the birth of a baby sister introduces a sensitive lad to the extremes of human emotion.

Only one piece, a B&W Gothic episode revolving around a theater-loving boy and his moralistic mother, relies too much on imitative stylistic flourishes. But every story possesses narrative momentum and tension, capturing the bygone pleasures and terrors of another age (the dramatized moments take place between 1900 and 1923). Amid such familiar performers as Elsa Zylberstein and Julie Gayet, all the young actors are exceptionally well directed.

Tellingly, the quotes Le Gal has chosen as the creative kernels of the project concern not the mechanics and aesthetics of filmmaking but the emotional essence of storytelling. That's worth noting in an era when film schools churn out technicians and careerists. No mere shrine to the pantheon, "Childhoods" honors the soulfulness and mystery of great art.

Screened: Saturday, April 25 (City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival)
Production: Tara Films
Cast: Gregoire Azouvy, Brandon Darai, Maxime Juravliov, Virgil Leclaire, Eliott Margue, Max Renaudin, Julie Gayet, Elsa Zylberstein, Octave Arveiller, Patrick Fierry, Jonathan Joss, Margot Meynard, Frederic Papalia
Directors: Yann Le Gal, Ismael Ferroukhi, Corinne Garfin, Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige, Isild Le Besco, Safy Nebbou
Screenwriter: Yann le Gal
Producer: Laurence Darthos
Directors of photography: Lubomir Bakchev, Benoit Chamaillard, Eric Guichard, Jowan Le Besco, Toni Malamatelios, Stephane Patti
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Tal Haddad
Editors: Tina Baz Le Gal, Julia Gregory, Liza Ignazi, Bernard Sasia
Sales agent: UMedia
No rating, 82 minutes
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