Mother and Son (Un Petit Frère) – Review

Mother and Son - Un Petit FrereWriter-director Léonor Serraille’s second feature-length film, Mother and Son (Un Petit Frère) is an immigrant story wrapped up in a coming-of-age drama. The film is broken down into three character-driven chapters; like a good book, we get to see different events from different perspectives. It is topped and tailed by a voiceover from the adult Ernest, the youngest of two sons who immigrate with their mother from the Ivory Coast to France in the late 1980s.

Rose (Annabelle Lengronne) is the focus of the first chapter. A single mother to Jean and Ernest, she finds herself sharing a box room – and a bed – with her children as they embark on their new life in Paris. But it’s not quite the glamour of the city she might expect. The second chapter centres on the adolescent Jean (Stéphane Bak), who appears intent on throwing away every dream or sense of drive he ever had. The final chapter shows us the adult Ernest (Ahmed Sylla) and how the family dynamic has changed irrevocably over the years.

Both Rose and Jean are characters that will no doubt cause a lot of conflicting opinions among viewers. Rose turns her nose up at life in Paris and, whilst she does exhibit plenty of doting mum behaviour, she does seem more intent on pursuing her own, individual fresh start. She uproots her children, taking them to Rouen, where they fend for themselves in a filthy, freezing apartment. She is often selfish and uninterested, only checking in with meaningless cliches about winning and success. Jean, in his teenage years, is seething at being left in a dingy flat, forced to ensure that his younger brother goes to school and gets to bed on time. Once a promising bright spark who dreamed of being a pilot, it’s depressing to watch that ambition drain out of him. His anger, barely concealable, is totally understandable, but his decisions are frustratingly poor. Both actors are incredibly watchable, even if we don’t always agree with their characters.

Mother and Son also benefits from a strong script. The chapter format works well in that we get to see the family at very different stages in their life. Chapter one sets up Rose as a vibrant young woman, seeking fun and adventure in her new surroundings. Her unglamorous work, as a hotel cleaner, is no doubt poorly paid and arduous. But what else can an immigrant with two young children do? Her decisions with regards to the men in her life are, at best, awful. You can see the resentment spreading like a cancer through her two boys as she breezes in and out of their lives. As Jean and Ernest grow up, it is fascinating (and, at times, very sad) to watch how their academic and personal lives pan out. The love between the two brothers is always clear to see but their paths in life don’t always look certain.

Mother and Son - Un Petit FrereWe also get to see glimpses of the immigrant experience in present-day France. As an adult, Ernest has re-established himself as a philosophy teacher in Paris. Whilst marking student essays, he nips out to buy some coffee. He is stopped by the police – whilst several white people walk past unchallenged – and questioned as to his nationality. After a rough pat down, he is referred to as “Mr. Obama” and sent on his way with derisive jeers about remembering his ID. Although Ernest can barely remember life in the Ivory Coast, he is still marked out as an outsider. He appears to take the incident in his stride, but it serves as a timely reminder as to the challenges even the most established immigrants continue to bear.

And, of course, with this being a family drama, in addition to an immigration and coming-of-age story, it’s in the emotional delivery that Mother and Son really excels. As viewers, we luxuriate in the close-ups given to the central triumvirate. We are invited to get to know them on an intimate level. We see Rose’s increasing emotional distance – with dashes of panicked (and perhaps feigned) maternal interest – and Jean’s very real, very physical anger. Perhaps Ernest is the character we know the least (or who suffers the least). The perks of being the youngest, eh?

Mother and Son (Un Petit Frère) is a well-written and superbly acted drama from Léonor Serraille that is bound to make an impact upon wider release.

Mother and Son (Un Petit Frère) is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023. Get your tickets here.

Mary Munoz
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