Swiss film-maker and former social worker Fred Baillif has created this pressure-cooked realist drama about a group of teen girls in a care home, where there is something more dysfunctional and tragic about the supervising staff than about the inmates themselves. Lora (Claudia Grob) is the director of this residential institution, a tough veteran of the system. Under her wing are troubled girls including Audrey (Anaïs Uldry), Précieuse (Joyce Esther Ndayisenga) and Justine (Charlie Areddy). Each of them is acting out, each has been abused in some way, but they find love and solidarity in this home: for them it is la famille, slangily shortened to la mif, equivalent, perhaps, to “the fam”.
But from the very outset, it is Lora herself who is in serious trouble: she is officially reprimanded for allowing a situation to happen whereby one of the girls, at 17, has sex with a 14-year-old boy who has been allowed to visit with others for a party. She incautiously opens up to one of the girls about an unthinkably painful thing in her own life, and when this same girl spitefully throws this information back in Lora’s face during a later row, Lora’s drinking problem begins to resurface; she slaps one of the abusive mothers who insults her, having been unlawfully demanding to see her daughter at the home – and things spiral out of control from there.
Each of the girls is introduced with a different “chapter” style section, and the action repeatedly rewinds to a specific and familiar point, though without any very startling difference or viewpoint-shift revelation. The energy between the girls is something that French cinema can do very well – I thought of Céline Sciamma’s Bande de Filles, but also Sarah Gavron’s Rocks). It is acted largely by nonprofessional newcomers and unscripted scenes have been allowed to unspool through improvisation and shaped in the edit. This is an engaging ensemble piece, acted with vehemence and sincerity, though it concludes a little melodramatically.
• La Mif is released on 25 February in cinemas.