My Mommy Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill: Film Review

"My Mommy Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill"
A subtly wrought and realistic portrait of a boy coping with death in 1970s France.

Stars Marc Lavoine and Julie Depardieu provide voices for this big-screen adaptation of a prizewinning French graphic novel.

PARIS -- Another pleasantly retro, thematically hefty animation offering from France, My Mommy Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill (Ma maman est en Amerique, elle a rencontre Buffalo Bill) follows a young boy coping with his mother’s death in a small French town in the 1970s. Adapted from the prizewinning graphic novel, this old-fashioned and realistic story brings to mind such recent Gallic works as Aya of Yop City and Ernest & Celestine (not to mention Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou movies), tackling a dark subject matter with a mix of fantasy and staidness, even if the film’s episodic structure sometimes lacks momentum.

Based on the 2007 comic book by writer Jean Regnaud and artist Emile Bravo, the movie was released locally alongside DreamWorks’ Turbo and Disney’s Planes, which have predictably dominated the tyke-targeted box office. Still, as another example of how the French can churn out mature, pared-down cartoons for all ages, this endearing effort deserves attention, and should continue its fest run after stops in Rome and Annecy (where it received a “special distinction” award).

Six-year-old Jean (voiced by Tom Trouffier) is starting a new semester in school, where his authoritarian teacher (Evelyne Grandjean) and bullying classmates are both giving him a hard time. At home, where he lives with his workaholic dad (Marc Lavoine) -- who owns the canning factory next door -- and bratty younger bro (Theo Benhamour), things are hardly easier, although their fun-loving nanny (Julie Depardieu) does her best to make things as cheery as possible.

Beyond the usual growing pains, it quickly becomes clear that Jean’s life has been upended by a traumatic event: the death of his mother. However, such vital information has been withheld from the young boy, who believes she’s on a trip somewhere far away. When a neighboring girl, Venert (Alexandre Aubry), begins offering Jean postcards supposedly sent by his mom (including one from a rodeo in the U.S. -- thus the title), he starts fantasizing about her adventures, and it’s only when various plotlines coalesce in the third act that the truth comes out.

Setting the action in a tiny rural city where the only pastime for kids is to shoot marbles at the neighboring junkyard, directors Marc Boreal and Thibaut Chatel -- both making their feature debut -- do a terrific job of re-creating the dreary, beige-infused landscape of France in the '70s, with art director Pascal Valdes (Renaissance) paying particular attention to the town’s monotonous architecture and stolid interiors.

With graphics that are naturalistically rendered, recalling classic comics like Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace and Jean-Jacques Sempe’s drawings for Le Petit Nicolas, the film certainly sets itself apart from most contemporary animated fare, with a mood that’s closer to a graphic novel than to the kid-friendly blockbusters currently made in Hollywood.

And not unlike in the source material, the filmmakers keep their story limited to Jean’s POV as he navigates the cruel world of his peers and the evasive emotions of his dad. To that extent, My Mommy offers up an honest portrait of a family trying to get past a tragedy, revealing how parents and children find different ways to deal with loss. Less convincing is a narrative that tends to digress and lacks a solid enough dramatic arc, even if the closing reel does a good job of tying it all together.

A hardworking score by Fabrice Aboulker offers up plenty of hooks to add weight to the movie's more ordinary scenes, while vet actor-singer Lavoine (Armed Hands) never overreaches in his portrayal of Jean’s well-meaning and heartbroken father.


Opens: Wednesday, Oct. 23 (in France); in Rome Film Festival (Alice in the Cities)

Production companies: Label Anim, Studiocanal, Melusine Productions

Cast: Marc Lavoine, Julie Depardieu, Tom Trouffier, Alice Orsat, Theo Benhamour

Directors: Marc Boreal, Thibaut Chatel        

Screenwriters: Jean Regnaud, Stephane Bernasconi, based on the graphic novel by Jean Regnaud, Emile Bravo

Producers: Thibaut Chatel, Guillaume Galliot

Artistic direction: Pascal Valdes

Music: Fabrice Aboulker

Editor: Stephane Gaultier

Sales agent: SND/Groupe M6

No rating, 75 minutes