After a year off, Cannes has returned with a lineup that’s an embarrassment of riches, seemingly designed to make even the most jaded cinephile feel FOMO from afar. But with this comes a problem. With the press in attendance all vying for tickets to the several major auteur premieres taking place every day, the organic experience of discovering a new filmmaker buried deep in the lineup feels like an afterthought, films with no pre-festival buzz getting looked past, struggling to obtain the screening audience they need to become word of mouth sensations.
Going in to the festival, La Traviata, My Brothers & I might be the least anticipated selection in the tantalising Un Certain Regard lineup, but Yohan Manca’s directorial debut is the film from the small crop that I’ve seen most likely to make a real world splash. Pitched somewhere between the gritty melodrama of Jacques Audiard and a kitchen sink crowdpleaser in the Billy Elliot mould, this is a comfortingly familiar coming of age drama, the kind of skillfully made film that can make audiences overlook its narrative familiarity through a combination of charm and effectively realised stakes. A successful festival circuit run and a plethora of international distribution deals seem likely if it can find its audience in Cannes. Until then, it’s a crowd pleaser in desperate need of a crowd.
Fourteen-year-old Noer (Maël Rouin-Berrandou) is the youngest of four brothers, spending his summer days in his southern French town either hanging by the beach watching his older siblings play football, or doing community service. Each of the brothers has a responsibility to take care of their critically ill mother, who has been in a sustained coma for some time, with Noer playing her Pavarotti as he watches over her, as opera was the music she loved the most. This ignites a passion for music, and while doing community work one day, bumps into the opera singer Sarah (Judith Chemla) who is teaching summer classes for local kids.
Sarah quickly discovers he’s a natural, but there are several obstacles stopping Noer from being able to follow this dream of becoming a singer. Tensions are rising at home, with older brother Abel (Dali Benssalah, who will shortly be seen in No Time to Die) demanding he get a summer job delivering pizza and to start pulling his weight over the summer, as the family are struggling to pay for their mother’s medicine. Meanwhile, older brother Hedi (Moncef Farfar) has fallen into a life of crime, making it harder for the family to raise the money to continue providing the critical care their mother needs.
When seeing this synopsis written down, it’s easy to roll your eyes at the sheer abundance of cliches being rolled out. The narrative tension of choosing between the career path your family wants, and a truer passion that’s against their wishes, is one of the most recurrent tropes in coming of age cinema – everything from Billy Elliot to High School Musical has put their own stamp on it, making it harder for any film attempting this narrative arc to shine on its own merits. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can afford to La Traviata, My Brothers & I is that in the first five minutes of watching, I could work out every last plot beat that would transpire in the ninety minutes that followed, and it didn’t remotely matter. In our spoiler phobic film culture, we often forget that the journey is of more importance than the destination, and Yohan Manca’s screenplay (based on a story by Hédi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre) is a richly drawn character study that transcends the various tropes that define the overarching narrative.
There’s an impossible science to making a crowd pleasing film in this vein, with a very thin line between enrapturing audiences with an effective storytelling simplicity, and making them check out early on because of how many times they’ve seen this story play out on the big screen. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes this film work where others don’t. It could be the grounded realism, which makes it something of a continental companion piece to similar kitchen sink dramas from Britain, where the dreams of escapism and “making it” are all within sight but frustratingly out of reach. It could also be that Manca’s screenplay prioritises the family dynamics over the narrative mechanics, a discreetly moving portrayal of a family struggling to get by due to the loss of one parent and the grave health of another.
This is mostly aided by the dynamic between Noer and Abel, whose relationship seems to have long shifted to one between child and surrogate father, Abel so eager to ensure Noer doesn’t throw away the chances in life that have eluded his older brothers that he goes out of his way to stop him enjoying being a kid. Their reconciliation before the film’s ending comes as no surprise – it’s to the director’s credit that the underplayed moment remains affecting. And although the film is intuitive to the struggles of the working class family, it never succumbs to miserablism despite the character arcs.
In the film’s later stages, we learn that middle brother Mo (Sofian Khammes) has taken to sex work to get by, which is refreshingly not depicted as a character at their “lowest point” in the way so many social realist films do. And the life of crime that Hedi has fallen into mostly proves to be a McGuffin to move things forward – beyond the coming of age clichés and dreams of youthful escapism, this is an effectively grounded tale of a family still in the process of adapting to unimaginable circumstances. It earns the right to peddle its over familiar tropes due to how richly written the characters entwined with them are.
La Traviata, My Brothers & I won’t win any awards for originality, but this affecting family drama deserves to win over the hearts of audiences.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival.