‘The Big Day’ (‘Le Grand jour’): Film Review

The Big Day Still - H 2015
Courtesy of VP-Ladybirds

A broadly heartwarming set of true stories that’s tempered by some awfully cheesy filmmaking.

‘On the Way to School’ director Pascal Plisson delivers another globetrotting kids documentary.

Following up his 2013 hit On the Way to School with another kids flick taking us to the farthest corners of the earth, director Pascal Plisson once again brings out the big guns – and the big cheese – for his latest documentary feature, The Big Day (Le Grand jour).

Very much like his last effort, this one tracks a quartet of underprivileged children in far-flung lands (Mongolia, India, Uganda and Cuba) as they try to accomplish a series of feats both academic and physical, overcoming significant socio-economic obstacles to achieve their goals. Marked by a charmingly naive staginess, this is the kind of film that Disney and Nat Geo could have partnered up to make in the mid-1980’s, mixing postcard-perfect landscapes, a sappy score and a positive vibe that runs against the grain of most contemporary Third World docs. As such, this Pathe co-production should find plenty of festival play and sufficient overseas opportunities, especially among distributors still handling what are known as “educational films.”

Plisson has a knack for painting intimate stories on a large canvas, and for using very broad brushstrokes to do so. Here, he showcases four characters attempting to do exceptional things in some highly exceptional settings, with editor Perrine Bekaert skillfully cross-cutting between each story as “the big day” of the title comes and goes.

In working-class Havana, 11-year-old Albert is hoping to box his way to the National Sports Academy – the first step toward becoming a champion prizefighter. Across the globe in Benares, 15-year-old Nidhi – the daughter of a rickshaw driver – is studying day and night to enter the “Super 30” math program, which could lead to a college education and a career in engineering. Down in the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, 19-year-old Tom is learning all he can about local fauna to pass the national exam and be certified as a park ranger. And over in the frigid steppes of Mongolia, 11-year-old Deegii is twisting herself into a pretzel as she attempts to transform into a professional contortionist – part of a longstanding tradition in her homeland.

The filmmakers follow each narrative thread as the kids work their butts off to make their dreams come true and, more significantly, make it out of poverty. The jaw-droppingly nimble Deegii is especially impressive in this regard, literally bending over backwards – as well as propping herself up by the mouth – during a series of rigid training sessions leading to a tryout for a major circus company in Singapore.

Despite the veracity of what's being presented, many scenes look to have been staged by the director and his crew, with the various characters pronouncing dialogue that could have been vaguely rehearsed beforehand. Frederick Wiseman this ain’t, and Plisson has no qualms about shifting from documentary into docudrama, giving The Big Day the feel of an afterschool special that’s bolstered by an array of exotic locations and lots of handsome widescreen cinematography (by returning DP Simon Watel).

Yet while it’s easy to criticize Plisson’s methods, as well as the results he achieves, there’s no denying the basic value of his enterprise. At a time when Western kids may be more spoiled than ever, here’s a film giving us a broad glimpse into how the other half lives, revealing the kind of sacrifices made to achieve a livelihood that many of us take for granted. The Big Day is corny, and even kind of fake, but it still rings true.

Production companies: Ladybros Cinema, Pathe
Director: Pascal Plisson
Screenwriters: Pascal Plisson, Olivier Dazat
Producers: Marie Tauzia, Roman Le Grand, Muriel Sauzay
Director of photography: Simon Watel
Editor: Perrine Bekaert
Composer: Krishna Levy
Sales agent: Pathe International

No rating, 86 minutes