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La Mif review – sobering but uneven grappling with the care system

Fred Baillif’s social realist drama makes for an admirable effort, though it might have worked better as a full-on documentary

A Geneva residential care home for teenage girls whose lives are in flux is the subject of this forthright social drama from writer-director Fred Baillif. La Mif – French slang for “the fam” – immerses itself in the trials and tribulations of the care system through the eyes of its residents. An in-your-face naturalism with improvised lines and an unsteady handheld camera imbues the raw film with a frankness that should be commended.

Together, the teenage girls and their social workers regenerate, test, and rebuild the expected image of “family” throughout Baillif’s unflinching examination of growing up in social care. The power dynamics under investigation here are the professional responsibility and personal duty of the figures who watch over them. But when an incident of sexual abuse threatens to tear apart this family, which member has the final say?

Episodically structured with a non-linear chronology, each of these young women are dedicated a chapter that centres on their perspective, adding context but contradicting the previous. Lora (Claudia Grob), the home’s manager who must lay down the law of the land while embodying an approachable matriarchal figure, is for viewers what she is to these young women: a force of guidance who cuts through differing perspectives with the sole aim of protecting the young people in her care.

Moment-to-moment this is a sobering film whose insight from Baillif, a former social worker-turned-filmmaker, is unmatched. His insider knowledge of the “system” is bolstered by the array of non-professional actors who eloquently bring their own experiences of the care system to their roles. La Mif is therefore, in a sense, bordering on the documentary.

With heady hostility causing arguments to erupt out of nowhere, the narrow hallways echo with shrill screams and rabid squabbles, unusually soundtracked to angelic choirs and classical music. The pairing makes for an unsettling choice, and another reason why La Mif feels like it might have been more purposeful as an outright documentary.

Impressive, however, is cinematographer Joseph Areddy’s nimble camerawork. Placed right in the room beside these young women, the camera picks up on the tension and responds with every grimace, eye roll, and muttered curse, magnified by astute and selective framing. Unfortunately, this intensity succumbs to poor pacing; the back and forth between board meetings, internal social worker debates, and the girls’ gossip circles interrupts the quietly arresting portrait to a detrimental degree.

La Mif is a bleak but undeniably fresh insight into the representation of young people coming of age under the responsibility of residential care. As the last moments of the film fall into silence, we can't help but wonder: is there any hope for reconciling the out-of-date institution? Was there even any hope to begin with?

La Mif screened as part of BFI London Film Festival 2021. It is released in UK cinemas on 25 February.

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