Stella -- Film Review

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Mid-'70s Paris provides the backdrop for writer-director Sylvie Verheyde's 2008 feature, a distinctively observed, semiautobiographical portrait of a girl's delicate transition from childhood to young adulthood.

U.S. art house distributors used to flock to this type of small, finely wrought film, and a committed boutique outfit could still guide "Stella" to modest returns, though DVD might prove more rewarding.

Making a refreshingly assured debut, Leora Barbara plays 11-year-old Stella, the only child of loving and casually indifferent parents (Karole Rocher, Benjamin Biolay) who run a scruffy Parisian bar and rooming house. Left mostly to fend for herself, she's a favorite with the regular clientele, a motley mix of petty thieves, hookers and ex-cons who coach her in playing cards, soccer techniques and pinball but can't be relied upon to help with her homework.

With the onset of the academic year, Stella begins attending a fancy new middle school along with students from more affluent backgrounds. Stella considers these fellow pupils "sheltered" and spiteful for dissing her unfashionable wardrobe and rather coarse manners. Street-smart but hardly studious, her first instinct is to rebel against the challenges of her demanding new regime, picking fights with classmates, cheating on homework and rationalizing poor grades.

When she meets Gladys (Melissa Rodriguez), a brainy new student from a middle-class family, the two become fast friends despite their vastly varying levels of scholarly effort and achievement. Gladys' mischievous humor, cosmopolitan world view and affinity for the arts gradually inspire Stella to discover the mysteries of literature and rewards of academic achievement.

As conflicts begin to escalate at home, menacing her newfound enthusiasm for learning, Stella struggles to gain the perspective and stability to successfully navigate the challenges of school and family life.

Barbara gives a terrific performance in the titular role, often narrating events in impishly ironic voice-over and persuasively shifting Stella's mood from nonchalance to melancholy and back again. Rocher and Biolay as Stella's clueless and romantically conflicted parents and the supporting cast of barroom regulars (notably Guillaume Depardieu as her much older casual crush) complete an atmosphere of tatty bonhomie.

Sensitively drawing from her own upbringing, writer-director Verheyde's script brings an air of authentic inevitability to Stella's character arc. Verheyde's observational camera, pitched to the rhythms of Stella's chaotic home life and restless curiosity, draws viewers into her character's colorful world, one that's also amusingly inflected with brief fantasy-sequence daydreams.

Spot-on costuming and production design evoke period ambiance, along with an upbeat selection of French pop songs.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
Production: Les Films du Veyrier
Cast: Leora Barbara, Karole Rocher, Benjamin Biolay, Melissa Rodriguez, Guillaume Depardieu
Director-screenwriter: Sylvie Verheyde
Producer: Bruno Berthemy
Director of photography: Nicolas Gaurin
Costume designer: Gigi Lepage
Editor: Christel Dewynter
Not rated, 103 minutes