Why is it that foreign directors master the coming-of-age story much better than Americans? Maybe it's because subtlety seems very unchildlike in this nation's eyes, but subtlety is exactly what this genre needs, and what foreign films often give it. Case in point: the 1999 French-Canadian film Set Me Free (Emporte-Moi). A young half-Jewish girl (Karine Vanasse), just entering her teens in Montreal in the 1960s, awakens to the unpleasant reality that her family is dysfunctional, poor, and angry. She identifies with a film heroine day after day, alone in a dark theater; she is attracted to a female classmate; she kisses her brother. In the hands of a less subtle (read: American) director -- ouch! But under Léa Pool's gifted guidance we get a beautiful and sensitive, though not sensational or melodramatic, piece. The father, for instance, is a bitter unemployed poet who also is a Holocaust survivor (played by Yugoslav actor Miki Manojlovic, last seen in Black Cat, White Cat). He's never married the children's mother, and he lashes out at his family in bursts. Yet he guides his daughter to the wonderful world of words and poetry. He's not a monster; he's a man. But it is Vanasse who steals the movie. She lets us feel her emotions through expression and movement, as she floats in the water, dances to music, strokes her sick mother. She sets us free from having to transcend overwrought performances so typical in this type of movie, and lets us dwell in the subtle mood shifts and graceful imagery being unveiled onscreen.
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