Cannes 2021 review: Softie (Samuel Theis)

When Softie, Samuel Theis’ second film after the Caméra d’Or-winning Party Girl in 2014, begins we get a glimpse of Johnny, a ten-year-old child, deftly rolling a cigarette for his father. It’s a small gesture that speaks volumes about where this child has been and what he has learned from his environment. The camera focuses on him, the father and his friends being peripheral to his experience. We then follow him as he moves with his mother and siblings to the projects while taking care of a fish, the camera still focused on him.

In Theis’ film, there is an instinctual impulse to follow Johnny and to experience the world through his eyes. The camera is usually set at his height and visual and aural elements often serve the purpose of bringing us closer to his experience. This is particularly felt in a scene where the teacher at the local school is speaking about heart rates, and places his fingers on Johnny’s neck to measure his. Johnny’s breathing intensifies, the camera slowly approaches him and we can feel desire being awoken for the first time inside his body.

Softie doesn’t shy away from presenting a complex and truthful view of a child’s experience of the world. It respects its protagonist and thus tries to make sense of him with all his facets, as an individual in the midst of power structures, class struggles and sexual impulses, even if he is a ten-year-old. In classic Durkheim-influenced sociology, childhood is seen as a transitional stage in which children are prepared for adult life; a stage in which they are empty vessels who are taught morals and codes of conduct to move from a savage state to a civilized one. Samuel Theis’ film contradicts this view and understands childhood as a fully formed phenomenon in itself.

The film doesn’t bypass other hard questions. Johnny gets close to his teacher, who is in turn attracted to his soft nature and sees in him a potential that could not possibly be fulfilled by his current state of affairs, economically and socially speaking. Whenever Johnny approaches him, he tries to maintain a distance, keeping doors open, worrying about how their relationship may be seen from outside. He struggles with establishing a relationship supposed to be devoid of affection: can education exist without something as human as emotion?

It is remarkable what Theis achieves with such a thorny subject, not being scared by the thorns but instead gently bending them and letting his characters exist and react in contradictory ways, not making big statements about society but instead letting them subvert expectations in smaller ways. The way, for example, Johnny’s mother can be both caring and violent, without being a subject of pity or condemnation. The word infant comes from the Latin in-fandus, which refers to someone who can’t speak. Softie resists the infantilization of a child and in doing so gives a loud voice to a single child that enlarges our view of how childhood works.