IndieLisboa Film Festival

LISBON, Portugal -- Low-budget cinema has long been fixated on coming-of-age tales, and "Charly" shows that in the right hands such material can still pack quite a punch. The pared-down story of an uncommunicative 14-year-old runaway and the force-of-nature girl who licks him into shape, it's executed on rough-looking video that initially repels, but whose raw-boned aesthetic proves ideal for the subject-matter. Though the frankness of an abrupt, late-in-the-day sexual encounter may raise some eyebrows (and exercise censors), "Charly" will delight festival-goers seeking cutting-edge European cinema and might even have an outside squeak at distribution in open-minded territories.

This audience-polarizing picture marks its 25-year-old French writer/director/editor/producer Isild Le Besco, previously better known as an actress. She's clearly learned massively from her hour-long, ho-hum 2005 debut "Half Price," a kiddie-ensembler featuring her brother, Kolia Litscher. He's now very much front-and-center as tousle-haired loner Nicolas, who impulsively flees his unsatisfactory home life and hitchhikes coastward. Marooned in a drab countryside/suburb backwater, he's offered accommodation by a young passer-by, trailer-dwelling Charly (Julie-Marie Parmentier), who makes it abundantly clear that the lad will have to snap out of his slovenly gloom, and pronto.

For the first half-hour a standard-issue depiction of teen anomie, "Charly" instantly kicks into higher gear when the flame-haired title-character literally stomps into frame. While Parmentier was 26 during filming, Charly could easily be over a decade younger. Indeed, the picture takes on added piquancy if we interpret the protagonists as being similar ages, as they're so wildly divergent in terms of experience and maturity.

Parmentier is irresistibly magnetic as this ultra-businesslike lass -- perhaps a prostitute, perhaps not -- and Le Besco, commendably resisting the melodramatic potentialities latent in this particular story, gives the actress ample space to make maximum impact.

The director's sole divergence from straight-down-the-line simplicity, meanwhile, are seconds-long dream-sequences involving marine-life, glimpses into Nicolas' subconscious that function crucially as delicate touches of transcendence in an otherwise blunt slice of uncompromising kitchen-sink reality.

Production company: Sangsho.
Cast: Kolia Litscher, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Philippe Chevassu, Jeanne Mauborgne, Kadour Belkhodja.
Director/screenwriter/editor: Isild Le Besco.
Producers: Christophe Bruncher, Isild Le Besco.
Executive producers: Laurence Berbon, Marie-Christine Birague.
Director of photography: Jowan Le Besco.
Production designer: Jayne Chu.
Costume designer: Penny Rose.
Sales: Tamasa, Paris.
No rating, 94 minutes.