Here is a film about a very complicated and painful kind of coming of age, or maybe a meditation on “coming of age” as something that never actually happens; it also examines the illusory dividing line between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience, present and past.
A son remembers his single mother: her wayward passions, her boyfriends, her yearning unhappiness – which he can see now but couldn’t then. He and his brother experienced the toughest of upbringings with her, as immigrants from Ivory Coast in 1990s France (two other brothers were mysteriously left behind). It is a narrative that is to end with mother and son meeting as adults, although these two people will perhaps never be able to see each other as such; never be able to decide if this a grownup moment for forgiveness or accusation, or if the burden of silence imposed by love has finally lifted.
Rose (superbly played by Annabelle Lengronne) is a young woman who has come over from Abidjan to live in Paris with her two lively boys, Jean and Ernest, played as little kids by Sidy Fofana and Milan Doucansi, then as teens by Stéphane Bak and Kenzo Sambin. They are all staying in the cramped flat of a relative, who is almost from the outset irritated by Rose’s sarky, ungrateful, “princessy” attitude, and her turning her nose up at the apparently nice if overbearing man that she sets Rose up with, who has the ominous name of Julius Caesar (Jean-Christophe Folly). He was – miraculously – willing to take on a woman with two children.
Instead, Rose dates white guys that she meets through her job cleaning hotel rooms, and the tone has perhaps been set here by the hotelier himself, who, in an entertainingly bizarre sequence, invites his staff to a somewhat dissolute “bonding retreat” weekend at his country estate. First there is construction worker Malick (Majd Mastoura) and then Thierry (Thibaut Evrard), a more thoughtful, mature man (supposedly separated from his wife) with whom Rose takes the boys to live in Rouen. But from the first, this is a fractured family: Thierry is away for long periods of time and so is Rose, working in Paris. Initially it is Jean who is the promising kid: a boy with an ambition to be an airline pilot. Yet it is Ernest who as an adult (played by Ahmed Sylla) will achieve an unguessed-at status in Paris, though hassled by racist cops who call him “President Obama”.
Rose’s story is that of someone wondering if she should settle – that is, settle for a man who will provide for her as a husband – or rebel against the whole idea. Her boys are also wondering how on earth they can settle: what place is there for them here, especially as Rose’s whole existence is in fact so unsettled? Has Rose messed them up, let them down, or just done her very best as a flawed individual who at least presented them with the example of someone who wanted to survive?
When they are little kids, Rose tells them never to cry, that they should cry only in their heads. The received opinion, of course, would be that Rose is wrong. But is being open about your emotions something that only well-off, middle-class French people can afford? The movie tracks the existences of Ernest and Jean as they negotiate similar pitfalls to the ones that their mother confronted, although with some advantages that she has secured for them. The parallel struggle goes on, and the unassuming courage of all three is moving.
• Mother and Son screens at the Cannes film festival.