By Miranda Schiller @
Paula Bélier is the 17-old-daughter of a cheese farming family in rural France. Early in the morning, she and her younger brother help on the farm, before she cycles to the village to get on the bus that takes her to school in the nearest town. On the bus, she handles all of her family’s business phone calls: She is the only hearing person in her family. Both her parents and her brother are deaf.
Her parents are also very sexually liberated, much to Paula’s embarrassment, who is awkward and unpopular at school. She shyly follows her secret crush into the school choir, where the teacher discovers her hidden singing talent. (Fabulously portrayed by Éric Elmosnino: a fallen star of the French chanson scene who asks himself daily how he ended up leading a provincial school choir). Of all people, Paula’s crush is set to be her duet partner – which leads to a horrible situation involving a first period and an embarrassingly unashamed mother.
So far, so standard teenage film fun. But La Famille Bélier takes the crazy-parents-trope up a notch. Paula’s father, in a bout of rage against the town mayor and the dilapidation of the former farming community, decides to run for mayor himself, with the support of his family. This results in a few photoshoots, town hall meetings, and a TV interview with a sulking Paula badly translating her dad’s inspired replies. However, this storyline sort of just disappears halfway through the film and we never find out what happened to his candidature. It seems like the filmmakers tried very hard to flesh the parent characters out so as to not run the danger of their only personality trait being “deaf”, but then didn’t quite manage to unite the three different storylines. There’s the dad’s election campaign, the teenage romance, and the singing, which completely takes over.
For obvious reasons, Paula’s parents can’t relate to her singing. So, for her big moment, the sound is faded out and we can experience what it must be like for her parents to see their daughter on a stage, in a pretty dress, with a boy, standing still, but somehow moving audience members all around them to tears. Don’t worry about missing out though, there are plenty of highly emotional singing moments to come so the cinema audience can be moved to tears too. This film is absolutely aimed at a hearing audience.
Which is why it has been criticised in the deaf community: The deaf characters are all played by hearing actors with imperfect sign language skills. The deafness does feel more like a trope than anything else (the well-known “my parents don’t understand what I want to do” can’t really get any more extreme than this), but at least, both parents have full characters and personal traits that are unrelated to their deafness.
The main reason to watch La Famille Bélier is the lead actress Louane Emera though. Her singing is as natural and beautiful as her acting, constantly balancing her shy and her powerful sides, and not quite knowing how to express this raw energy forcing its way out through her voice.
A moving and solid debut for a young talent who we’ll hopefully see and hear more of.
La Famille Bélier is in cinemas September 11th.