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Review: French drama ‘Milla’ patiently spins a tale of life on the fringes

Review: French drama ‘Milla’ patiently spins a tale of life on the fringes
Luc Chessel and Séverine Jonckeere in the movie "Milla." (Grasshopper Film)

Your viewing patience — and you’ll need it — will be rewarded by the French import “Milla,” a veritable slow dip into an ordinary young woman’s life on the fringes. Although this quietly daring, decidedly nonjudgmental film doesn’t ask or answer a lot of questions, it paints a cumulatively vivid portrait of young love and early motherhood.

Milla (Séverine Jonckeere) is a game teenager living off the grid with her lanky, Jesus-haired boyfriend, Leo (Luc Chessel). They enjoy a playful bond as they become squatters in an abandoned house on the coast of northern France. It’s a subsistent existence reliant on cheap or stolen food, dumpster diving and their own idiosyncratic brand of organization. Still, they make their crash pad a home.

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But when Leo gets a job on a fishing boat, it leads to an untimely twist that leaves a pregnant Milla to her own devices. We jump forward to the plucky mom-to-be working as a hotel housekeeper befriended by an older co-worker (director-writer-editor Valérie Massadian), with whom she apparently also lives. As elsewhere, details are few but you’ll get the point.

The film’s final stretch finds Milla now the warmly engaged mother to lively toddler Ethan (Ethan Jonckeere, the star’s real-life son). As a lovely bookend to this resonant tale, they exist in the kind of “just-you-and-me” bubble Milla once shared with Leo, albeit in more mainstream style: a decent apartment seemingly funded by Milla’s new job at a produce market.

It’s ultimately a strangely optimistic and uplifting, yet fully credible, snapshot of hand-to-mouth, working-class life. Ms. Jonckeere, with her wide, watchful eyes (think of a young Simone Signoret) and sturdy if smallish figure infuses Milla with a subtle spirit and deceptive strength.

The filmmaker certainly lets her scenes breathe, at times to a fault; a bit of trimming wouldn’t have hurt. Massadian’s camera lingers in long, stationary, observational takes that, at their best, can prove immersive and hypnotic. Several uses of the Violent Femmes’ anarchic song “Add It Up,” including a surreal rendition set in a colorful hotel hallway, also compel.

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‘Milla’

Not rated

In French with English subtitles

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes

Playing: Aug. 15, 8 p.m., Acropolis Cinema, Downtown Independent, Los Angeles

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