Festiville at TIFF: Part 3—Child Actors with Major Talent

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Lise pays attention to the youngest performers at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. 

“All genres of cinema can go through a kid's gaze or a teen gaze”Céline Sciamma at her TIFF 2021 Q&A

TIFF 2021 was a showcase for astounding performances by child actors. The performances these children give are as natural and real as the best adult actors out there. They are uber-talented and thanks to their directors, they provided us with unforgettable characters.

Costa Brava, Lebanon

Directed by Mounia Akl, written by Akl and Clara Roquet

A family left Beirut eight years ago to live a self-sustainable lifestyle in the hills nearby but the problems they left behind are now appearing on their doorstep in writer-director Mounia Akl’s first feature film, Costa Brava, Lebanon. In a movie that stars such acclaimed actors as Nadine Labaki (director and star of Capernaum, which also features a great child performance) and Saleh Bakri (Wajib, The Band’s Visit), it is astounding that the youngest character in the film is able to steal all the scenes she is in.  

As Nikla writes “The standout performers here are twins Ceana and Geana Restom, who share the role of the young and precocious Rim throughout.... It is an incredibly mature portrayal from two young actors, and a deeply resonant depiction from Akl and her co-writer Clara Roquet.” Nine year-old Rim—who tends to count a lot, as a means of control over situations a young person simply cannot—is as tender and gentle and quiet as she is a bossy, rambunctious tomboy, something Akl employed the talents of both twins for, as she describes in this interview with Moveable Feast

Petite Maman

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

It is one thing to direct children in a film; it is quite another to direct children as the stars of a film. In Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma's highly anticipated follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, “the film’s two leads, real-life sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, are adorable,” writes Sara on Letterboxd. “As they play board games, put on plays and make crêpes, they tackle themes of death and fear. They speak and convey emotion with so much maturity.” 

Most of the 72 short minutes of Petite Maman are spent with eight-year-old Nelly. Played by Joséphine, Nelly is a swaggering, curious girl who doesn’t mince words, but who is simultaneously so loving and tender. In a scene very early on, she is in the backseat of the car and asks her mother if it is time for snacks. She proceeds to share her snacks with her mother, then gently wraps her arms around her mother’s neck. It’s probably the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.

Gabrielle Sanz plays Nelly’s friend Marion, who Nelly discovers building a fort in the bushes. Festival correspondent Kambole Campbell notes “As in Miyazaki’s films (which this very intentionally references—Totoro especially) the viewpoints of children are treated with sincerity, even as their frivolous silliness and make-believe is celebrated.” 

In a Q&A with TIFF, Sciamma explained that ”the depth of the way [kids] care is for me [full of] narrative and tension and dynamic and it’s a very good heart for cinema". Sciamma is definitely onto something. Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz are so nuanced and convincing it’s hard to believe they knew they were being watched.

Scarborough

Directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson. Written by Catherine Hernandez. 

Directors who work with children deserve respect. Directors who work with multiple children deserve our admiration. Directors who work with multiple children as the main characters deserve a standing ovation. 

“A wonderful cast brings out the tender beauty of friendship and community,” writes Shane of the performances in Scarborough. Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson worked with no fewer than three children as the leads in their film, where we spend a year in the young characters’ lives as they and their families navigate difficult social justice issues in an East Toronto neighbourhood. 

Liam Diaz plays Bing, a young Filipino boy who spends most of his time at the nail salon where his mother works. He is an old-soul, soft-spoken, kind and tender towards all despite being bullied. He befriends Sylvie, played by Essence Fox, a spirited Indigenous girl who does not suffer fools and sticks up for anyone who is laughed at or excluded.  And then there is Laura, played by Anna Claire Beitel, a quiet, shy and gentle girl whose abuse at home prevents her from socializing with the other kids at the literacy centre where all three children meet.

A social worker born and raised in Scarborough, Lil has nothing but positive words to say about the “amazing” child actors. Ashton agrees: “All the performers here, young and old, are revelatory, the kind of casting magic that doesn’t come around often.” 

Ceana and Geana Restom, Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, Liam Diaz, Essence Fox, and Anna Claire Beitel, I thank you for Rim, Nelly, Marion, Bing, Sylvie and Laura.

Lise 

Pictured: Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman