Berlinale 2021 review: La Mif (Fred Baillif)

‘La Mif’ is French slang for ‘the family’, meaning the gang, the bunch. For the girls of Fred Baillif’s film, gang and family are the same thing since they live in an institution for teenagers separated from their kin, some because their parents were victims and others because their parents were offenders. The gang they form inside the shelter becomes their family with whom they share almost everything, including some of the drama and clashes they would rather keep to themselves. The staff of adults running the institution, managed by long-time support worker Lora, inevitably get to be a part of the family as well, even though it dangerously blurs the line between personal intimacy and professional relationship. They are the closest thing these kids have to a caring environment, and yet they are expected to enforce the rules in an impartial fashion, like in the opening sequence where one member of staff comes across two kids making love and must report to the police, as one is seventeen and the other fourteen.

This makes it rape in the eyes of the law, even if everyone involved – the teenagers who were having consensual sex, the support workers – knows it was nothing like it. The narrative structure of the movie puts this story on the same level as the ones attached to the other residents, truly bleak for the most part. Like Tamra who is drained of the joy of turning eighteen as this means the Swiss state can deport her, her requests for asylum having been denied. Or Justine who refuses to return to her family since she was unable to prevent the death of her baby sister. But the theme of sex crimes is the dominant one in La Mif. With a clear reminder that teenagers are not guilty of sex (as Lora puts it, “Sex is not a crime, it is a right, that has to be learned“), but are casualties of sexual assaults perpetuated by adults – rape, incest. Hence the film does its share to address these burning issues (in France, since a few weeks now the Me Too movement has prompted a Me Too Incest movement) and how we must fight them as they cripple people for life.

The energy and style of La Mif evoke Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’or winner The Class, which observed with a similar approach a group of teenagers and the adults responsible for them. Still, La Mif exists on its own: due to its setting there cannot be any normality in the lives of its characters, who go through much more frequent and more severe trauma than average kids do. The aesthetics of the film go along with this fact: by moving repeatedly back and forth in time, which in a smart way reinforces the dramatic strength of the story, the editing dissociates the movie from cinéma vérité style. La Mif has its roots in reality but ends up being a true and gripping work of cinema, creating connections and symbolism through visual storytelling, mostly in its last two sequences. In the first of these, the adults behave exactly like the teenagers earlier, which reminds us that we never truly grow up. And in the second one, ‘la mif’, the gang of the shelter, definitely looks like a true family: they lose an elder, and welcome a baby.