Before some genius PR person decides to package this as another "coming of age" film, please note that while "Stella," by writer/director Sylvie Verheyde, has a few of the elements that go into a typical "feel good" picture trailer, this film is an original.
Yes, there is a little girl in the title role, played by an amazing Léora Barbara. And she does have to struggle against considerable odds before showing that she just might make a success of it - life, that is. We know all that, because we know that Stella is Sylvie Verheyde's own story, and that Verheyde is a successful woman of film, as writer, actress, producer, and director.
Ango-Saxon audiences (I have no clue as to when Stella will be released beyond Continental Europe) may not recognize many in the film's highly credible cast, which is perhaps just as well. Some, like Karole Rocher who plays Stella's barmaid mother, are Verheyde veterans. Other characters are played by a director-chosen mix of actors and amateurs: bar hounds in the parents' bistro; teachers (some of whom teach in real life), both the frustrated and the inspiring; and the first-year secondary school kids - lost, awkward, class-conscious, and very conscious of who is - and Stella is not - cool.
Stella has to maneuver through a number of minefields: at "home" she sees things that no 11 year-old should see, and ingests huge quantities of secondary smoke from the omnipresent Gitanes or Gauloises while playing cards with the grown up habitués. At school, neither classmates nor teachers (with a couple of key exceptions) know what to make of her mix of dreamy inattention and tomboyish schoolyard behavior. And yet... 3 decades later, how many of Stella/Sylvie's former classmates are getting awards at the Venice Days film festival?
In Venice, Sylvie Verheyde (SV, like title character "Stella Vlaminck," has roots in the Flanders of northern France) told an interviewer just how semi-autobiographical this is:
Like Stella, I grew up in a working-class cafe, a world that was tough, violent, far from the world of childhood. Like her, I was catapulted into a famous Parisian secondary school. And like her, I arrived there alone with my soccer ball under my arm. Like her, I spit on a boy on the playground and went home with a black eye on the first evening!
The interview, on the Venice Days site linked above, is worth a look for Verheyde's explanation of the context in the late Seventies, when "there was a lot of heated discussion on schools: on authority, coeducation, the veil, school as a means of upward social mobility, etc." Three decades later, many of these are still hot issues, and not just in France.
I hope a few teachers see Stella, and reflect on how knife-edge their charges' lives are. A few too many mean-spirited words, or a few flickers of inspiration can make all the difference. And for its portrayal of a working class world fueled by alcohol, tobacco, and football, Stella has few equals.