Families come in all shapes and sizes, like the one born out of necessity in Fred Baillif’s drama La Mif, winner of the Grand Prix for Best Film in the Generation 14plus competition at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival.

Former social worker turned filmmaker Baillif literally immerses you in the middle of life at a residential care home in Geneva in his film titled The Fam in English, slang for ‘the family’. The result is so realistic that you could be forgiven for initially thinking you are watching a documentary. It is a raw watch, but one that cleverly avoids focusing solely on stereotypical and troubling youthful behaviour expected in such a narrative, but also turns the spotlight around on the staff running the place.

After 17-year-old orphan and resident Audrey (Anaïs Uldry) has sex with an underage boy who is visiting, the authorities are called in, Audrey is arrested, and a criminal investigation begins, which also calls into question the management style used by care home director Lora, played by Claudia Grob, who is dealing with her own personal tragedy. This catalyst of events threatens to implode the delicate balance, respect and solidarity that the staff has managed to instill with help and understanding from the teens in their care. The outcome is questionable but incredibly thought-provoking.

The subject of adequate care for vulnerable children always triggers strong emotions, and Baillif gives his film a distinct edge by employing mainly non-professional actors in this, as well as setting it in an actual care home environment. Often compared to Sarah Gavron’s London-based Rocks, La Mif moves back and forth along the timeline leading to and from Audrey’s arrest. Each chapter concentrates on one girl’s story and shows their actions and reactions to the relentless threat to the family dynamic they all face.

Baillif’s handheld camerawork expertly feels unobtrusive in often very intimate scenes, so that some padding in parts during the one-hour-52-minutes run-time is overlooked as the viewer attempts to figure out how each teen protagonist ticks, and where they sit in the delicate group structure.

The subjects of puberty, sexuality, abuse and domestic violence, immigration, grief and coming of legal adult age are brilliantly handled and interwoven throughout. There is even a surprise revelation with the story of Précieuse (Joyce Esther Ndayisenga) that only a filmmaker with personal experience of such a tricky subject matter could confidently and adequately portray, as well as Lora’s fate that Grob superbly acts out.

The film does verge towards melodrama in one defiant scene, as Lora gathers the girls together one night and frank conversations flow. This does detract from the more powerful, pressurised play of the rest of the events. That said, more is gleaned about the carer and her girls’ personalities minus the fronts they all hide behind, so it is an intriguing distraction set away from the home.

The very end scene is perhaps one of the most harrowing and lingering of them all, as the girls react to the new arrival to the home of an infant who has been brought in under an emergency protection order – similar to Précieuse. Baillif delays the response from his cast and hence heightens the abhorrence and helplessness you feel, in light of meaningful solutions to the care system and society’s dealings with children. It was a bold whammy of an ending that is left to breathe naturally, and one the filmmaker should be proud of.

It is difficult to decipher how such a film like La Mif could find a commercial audience outside of the film festival circuit. However, because it airs more on the side of docudrama, it is a sobering, intelligent and fascinating watch that does well not fall prey to plot stereotypes. It also looks the whole, organic impact of those in care and their caregivers, and how they cope as a unit and strive to produce some sort of sense of ‘normality’ and stability in an unconventional family. For that reason, La Mif sets out to do what Baillif desires as it triggers a whole spectrum of emotions that shine new light on a very real and present problem.

La Mif
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Lisa Giles-Keddie
Fierce film reviewer and former BFI staffer, Lisa is partial to any Jack Nicholson flick. She also masquerades as a broadcast journalist, waiting for the day she can use her Criminology & Criminal Justice-trained mind like a female Cracker.
la-mif-reviewWith La Mif Fred Baillif triggers a whole spectrum of emotions that shine new light on a very real and present problem. It is a sobering, intelligent and fascinating watch that does well not fall prey to plot stereotypes.