Philadelphia Film Festival – ‘I Am a Soldier’ is genuine and suspenseful

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I Am a SoldierI Am a Soldier
Directed by Laurent Larivière
France, 2015
Philadelphia Film Festival

Laurent Larivière’s brilliant debut I Am a Soldier is genuine and suspenseful. It’s the rare film that feels personal and sprawling at once, and is buoyed by a fantastic performance from Louise Bourgoin.

Sandrine (Bourgoin) loses her apartment and is unable to find a job, so she moves temporarily to her mother’s house. Her sister (Nina Meurisse) and brother-in-law (Nathanael Maini) have also moved home amidst similar financial tension. Sandrine takes a job with her Uncle Henri (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and enters the world of illegal dog trafficking.

There was a time when cute dogs and a female protagonist equaled a very certain kind of schmaltzy, romantic film, and I Am a Soldier is anything but. Sandrine isn’t a cold anti-hero, and like any good protagonist her weaknesses are on full display, but she’s also not on-screen just to hug cuddly things. Larivière’s film tracks her on job interviews, hiding her bags post-eviction in her family’s modest shed, and riding the bus: in short, doing real things. We learn little about her but feel like we know a lot. Larivière doesn’t need to over-dramatize her job search: she’s tried, a lot; she’s failed, a lot.

I Am a Soldier is also very much about an economic crisis. Sandrine’s mother works a minimum wage job at a grocery store. Her sister and brother-in-law are struggling to build their dream house without expertise or the financial means. The best moments of the film aren’t the shady back-room dealings of Uncle Henri’s associates, but rather the simple family interactions: a game of cards where her mother can’t stop cheating; an emotional conversation between Sandrine and her fed-up brother-in-law.

The films of the Dardenne brothers might be an easy comparison here: working-class, low-income protagonists forced into shifty work to make ends meet. Though Larivière’s film certainly doesn’t reach the narrative or thematic heights of those films (it’s designed to feel more fluid and nearly cinematographically conventional) it hits a similar, smaller nail.

Is Sandrine naïve? There’s a great scene where she can’t stop giggling during a job interview, for which she seems at least modestly qualified. The performance is so fresh, the scene so relatable that it doesn’t feel like a case of immaturity, but rather the frustration of her search bubbling to surface in unexpected ways.

There’s a romantic entanglement in I Am a Soldier, and while it’s unorthodox and atypical, it represents something near to a misstep towards the ending moments – a scene that’s as close to the dreaded ‘quirkiness’ as the film comes. Luckily, that moment is left in the dust for a scene (a shot, really) that brings I Am a Soldier to a meaningful denouement.

 

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