Leonor Serraille's gorgeous new film, about an Ivorian family in France, balances a grounded tale with splashes of the surreal
It’s hardly uncommon for films to change titles depending on what country they’re releasing in, but Leonor Serraille’s Mother and Son is a particularly interesting example. Released in the UK under that title, it’s known in France as Little Brother – a very fitting discrepancy for a film all about the way our roles, and how we see ourselves, within a family unit change over the years. An intimate epic spanning decades in the life of an Ivorian family in France, it’s a gorgeous and moving look at how our relationships with our family members can never stay static, even if we’d like them to.
Split into three chapters, Mother and Son opens in 1989 with Rose (Annabelle Lengron) and her two sons, 10 year old Jean and 5 year old Ernest (who gives a hindsight-filled narration as an adult), as fresh arrivals in Paris, staying with family friends as the boys attend school and Rose works as a hotel cleaner. From the off, Rose is a fascinating character, as ambitious and goal-oriented for her sons as she is aimless and immature in her own life, constantly drawn towards flaky boyfriends. Lengron finds this balance with sublime skill in this first section before allowing more and more hints of world-weariness to creep in as Rose and the boys age into their new French lives.
We jump forward to the mid ‘90s for Jean and Ernest’s chapters (before extending into the late noughties for a touching epilogue), now navigating the world as teenagers in the shabbier environs of Rouen, with Jean as the primary caregiver in Ernest’s life. We see teen drama and academic anxiety through Jean’s eyes, while Ernest tries to find his place as something between a little brother and a son to Jean. The whole cast is fantastic across the board, their ever shifting dynamics both affecting and funny – a scene in which 11-year-old Ernest and his friends try and speak like adults to discuss matters of love is just a delight.
Serraille bathes all these moments in beautiful, glowing light, giving the constant feel of memory or an old photo album; there’s a thread here about how we valorise the past, whether the memories themselves are good or bad, just for its being the past that manages to ring profoundly true. A particular scene in Ernest’s chapter in which he goes on holiday to the summer home of a wealthy schoolfriend feels so real that you can almost swear you remember it happening to you, a real coming together of all of Mother and Son’s strengths.
If there isn’t the emotional gutpunch you might think a story like this is leading to (like in real life, the characters don’t notice they’re in a turning point until it’s already passed), each segment does get a showstopper centrepiece segment that more than ameliorates that. Whether it’s Rose’s brilliantly bizarre excursion to the mansion of the Old Money man that owns the hotels she works at that goes from hunting trip to rave to orgy or a Claire Denis-inspired nightclub dance for Jean, Serraille isn’t afraid of pulling this grounded tale somewhere more abstract. It’s this stylistic ambition that completes Mother and Son, a film that might look lo-fi on the surface but is subtly granted the sort of grand dramatic heft that makes it much more memorable.
Mother and Son is released in UK cinemas on 30 June.Where to watch