Ponette - * * 1/2*

Child actors are problematic. They usually come in two flavors: those who don’t really know what they’re doing, and therefore act natural. They’re convincing, but not always appropriate. The other flavor of child actor is the overactor: hyperaware that they’re in the spotlight, giving exaggerated performances that may fit the film, but are utterly unconvincing at the same time. Subtlety is not a trait of the young. The typical child actor starts out as the former type, but slowly evolves into the latter.

That brings us to Victoire Thivisol, the 4-year old star of Ponette, and the controversial recipient of the Best Actress award at the 1996 Venice Film festival. Victoire plays the title role in Ponette, that of a grief-stricken young girl who has recently lost her mother (Marie Trintignant). She is introduced to us at the hospital where she recovers from the car accident which claimed her mother’s life.

Understandably, Ponette doesn’t quite understand what death is, and why her mother won’t be coming back. She loved her mother very much, and wants to see, talk, and play with her again. She gets confusing and sometimes contradictory explanations from the adults in her life (including her father, Xavier Beauvois), as well as some other children.

That leaves her on her own to explore her grief, and try to find answers on a variety of issues: religious and philosophical. What is death? Is there a soul? Is there an afterlife? Is there a God? Are there miracles?

If this sounds like a somber subject for a film, it is. Yet it is fascinating to approach these issues from the point of view of a child. And that brings us back to Victoire.

She has a huge burden on her small shoulders…to carry the emotional baggage of the entire film. And she succeeds. Is it natural grace, or a conscious awareness of the subtlety the role requires? Does it matter? Either way, she delivers an emotional performance well beyond her years.

Is Victoire a good actor? Only time will tell. She’s certainly good here. One can hope she only makes a brief stopover at the self-conscious stage, and emerges unscathed.

But is the movie worth her performance? Unfortunately, it isn’t completely. It starts well, but slowly begins to unravel along the way. The unrelenting tone may be to blame, as the film begins to look this way and that for an escape from the dreary gloom of Ponette’s grief. It finally breaks free, but with a shock that will give viewers whiplash and that completely negates any message the film has been building.

Ponette is worth seeing for an extraordinary performance by a child actor. It tries to be a bit more…but doesn’t succeed.

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