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A 12-year-old blonde cutie is hopelessly in love with the boy who lives in the wonky skyscraper next door in Lou! (Lou! Journal Infime), a live-action adaptation of the popular French comic books directed by the series’ original creator, Julien Neel. Art-directed to within an inch of its entirely synthetic life, this whimsical and colorful tale is squarely aimed at tween girls for whom “precious” and “twee” might function as marks of quality. For everyone else, this will mostly be quirky and cute of the trying-too-hard variety, so older family members who might have been wooed by the star power of Ludivine Sagnier and Nathalie Baye, who play the protagonist’s mother and grandmother respectively, will be disappointed. Local box office in France was a somewhat discouraging $1.5 million, which is likely what the art department had available for bric-a-brac in bright colors alone. However, sales for formats in which young girls can watch this by themselves should logically be through the roof.
The level of quirkiness can already be spotted in the French-language title, which is a pun on “journal intime” (literally: “diary”), with “infime” suggesting it is teeny tiny (infinitesimal, so to speak). The property is clearly beloved in France, where it spawned not only six bestselling graphic novels but also a 52-episode animated TV series that ran on several networks including the French Disney Channel. But whereas the comics and small-screen episodes could be consumed just by the target audience, Neel and his collaborators seem to have failed to realize that for a cinema outing to be successful, it needs to appeal to a larger audience than purely those in the same age bracket as his protagonist.
Lou (sassy newcomer Lola Lasseron) is a shy but creative girl who lives with a depressed if very loving single mother (Sagnier), whose eyes are hidden behind huge glasses that barely peek out from underneath maroon-colored bangs. Mom is really into mindless vintage video games (this will make any parent over 40 feel really old), and both girls are into brightly hued “old stuff” they jointly pick up at flea markets and such.
As a result, their top-floor apartment is stuffed to the rafters with useless items of decoration, and their home’s colorful jumble and disarray extends to the entire town mother and daughter seem to live in, which feels like a production designer’s wet dream (Sylvie Olive was the lucky one who got to design it all). In the skyscraper across from their building lives the boy Tristan (Joshua Maze, who looks like Thomas Sangster circa Love Actually) whom Lou’s literally got her eye on since she secretly observes him every day from her window, and she jots down his every move in her journal. Like most girls her age, she’s too shy to do much about it, so it’s a good thing her gaggle of girlfriends and a new neighbor, the musician Richard (Kyan Khojandi), who might be interested in her single mother, help her out in that department.
Neel, who co-wrote the screenplay with screenwriter Marc Syrigas, doesn’t really offer an overarching dramatic structure. Instead, he keeps gets sidetracked by subplots, often populated by secondary characters, that might expand Lou’s world but don’t necessarily move what little story there is forward. The most delicious of the supporting roles is Baye’s as Lou’s grandmother, a rather severe neat freak who can’t stand the mess her daughter and granddaughter seem to live in. And Sagnier gets a fun storyline when she starts writing a novel about a female science-fiction hero who subsequently comes alive as an anime character.
However, the lack of glue between all these heterogeneous fragments means that around the halfway mark, the film starts to feel scattershot and run out of steam. Neel’s unfortunate solution is to simply add even more elements, such as a vaguely Asian “happy dance” that feels like a gold-leaf version of the Pink Elephant sequence from Moulin Rouge; a mock video series re-enacted with Barbies à la Todd Haynes‘ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and a strikingly staged finale that involves a CGI-augmented laser game — a tactic that only works if the viewers themselves are part of the ADD generation.
Sagnier and especially Baye try to locate the heart in their cartoonish maternal characters, and newcomer Lasseron is at least a warm and spunky presence in a role that’s severely underwritten, though all of them are frequently upstaged by all the bells and whistles newcomer Neel feels he needs to keep throwing at the screen in order to mask the fact there’s not much of a story in the first place.
Production companies: Move Movie, Mother Production, France 2 Cinema, Cinefrance 1888, StudioCanal, Scope Pictures
Cast: Ludivine Sagnier, Nathalie Baye, Kyan Khojandi, Lola Lasseron, Joshua Maze, Julie Ferrier, Lily Taieb, Sacha Vassort, Lea Nataf, Anne Agbadou-Masson, Virgile Hurard
Director: Julien Neel
Screenplay: Julien Neel, Marc Syrigas, based on the comic by Julien Neel
Producers: Bruno Levy, Harold Valentin, Aurelien Larger
Director of photography: Pierre Milon
Production designer: Sylvie Olive
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Yannick Kergoat
Music: Julien Di Caro
Casting: Elsa Pharaon
No rating, 100 minutes
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