Cannes 2024 review: La Pampa (Antoine Chevrollier)

“Deftly captures the power of friendship and the struggle to define oneself at the brink of adulthood.”

With his debut feature La Pampa (Block Pass), premiering in Cannes’ Critics Week sidebar, Antoine Chevrollier presents an immersive tale of male friendship and coming of age that immediately signals him as a major new talent behind the camera. Set in the countryside of western France, the film follows Willy (Sayyid El Alami) and Jojo (Amaury Foucher), best friends who have been inseparable since childhood and who share above all a love of motocross and a burning desire to leave their small town. While Willy struggles to balance his love of the sport and the academic expectations set for him by his widowed mother Sévérine (Florence Janas), Jojo is pushed to his limits by his father David (Damien Bonnard) and trainer Teddy (Artus Solaro), both former motocross champions who see in the teenager a chance to relive their glory days. After a chance encounter in which Willy discovers the sexual relationship between Jojo and Teddy, the two friends find themselves on the precipice of an eventful end to their adolescence.

While La Pampa doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of storytelling, Chevrollier’s assured command of tone, his understanding of the close-knit, patriarchal, and sports-obsessed milieu his characters reside in, and the excellent performances that he gets out of his actors work together to create a film that is a captivating portrait of the pains of growing up. Chevrollier is particularly impressive in how he conveys the simultaneously reassuring and suffocating experience of living in a small town where everyone knows everyone, your entire life will follow the trajectory of the generation before you, and where any deviation from the norm is treated with derision or outright hostility. It immediately becomes clear why the two teens, despite being popular amongst their peers, don’t feel entirely at home. The friendship between Willy and Jojo is at the heart of the film, and one of the more refreshing elements of the film is that Willy doesn’t care about Jojo’s sexuality, he is just briefly hurt that his best friend wouldn’t share his real self with him. Newcomers Sayyid El Alami and Amaury Foucher (the latter in his on-screen debut) establish themselves as actors to watch. El Alami expertly navigates Willy’s emotions as he deals with his friendship with Jojo, his frustration at feeling as if his late father’s memory is being erased by his mother’s new boyfriend, and his blossoming romance with Marina (Léonie Dahan Lamort), a fine arts student dismissed by the local boys as promiscuous but with whom he finds a much-needed kinship. Even when Willy is at his most explosive or his most taciturn, El Alami doesn’t resort to a superficial portrayal of these states of mind but instead proves incredibly effective at portraying his inner turmoil with his expressive eyes and body language. Jojo is the less developed character, but Foucher brings a charisma to the role that immediately charms the audience, along with capably handling the more dramatic material he has to work with in the film’s second half. And both actors are incredibly convincing as life-long friends; the energy they bring to their scenes together is a major reason that the film works as well as it does.

The supporting cast shines throughout the film—Damien Bonnard skillfully navigates a role that could have been a clichéd “toxic sports dad” in the wrong hands, bringing a refreshing and unsettling ambiguity to his character in the final half hour after David takes on a more prominent role in Willy’s life. Léonie Dahan Lamort is a delightfully spiky screen presence as the self-assured Marina, and her budding relationship with Willy brings a needed gentleness to the film—while the film’s screenplay successfully gives Marina enough dimensions so that she’s more than just “the girlfriend”, her presence is missed in the final stretch of the film when Willy’s future in motocross becomes the central focus. Florence Janas is at once world-weary and loving as Sévérine, a woman trying to begin a new chapter in her life while also dealing with a son who refuses to live up to his potential and who is still struggling with his father’s death years earlier. The late-film confrontation between Sévérine and Willy where they finally hash out their different approaches to this looming absence is a highlight of the film. And Artus Solaro (better known in France for his comedic work as Artus) proves himself to be a capable dramatic actor here, demonstrating how internalized homophobia and the pressure to live up to the traditionally masculine ideals of small-town life have made Teddy into someone consumed by self-hatred and the fear of being exposed as his true self.

In addition to the excellent ensemble cast, Chevrollier skillfully deploys techs to complement the film’s tone and sense of space. Benjamin Roux’s cinematography precisely captures the French countryside, at once filled with warm colors yet dominated by wide open spaces and landscapes that heighten the sense of isolation that Willy and Jojo struggle with. The motocross sequences are especially notable—whether shot from a crowd perspective or switching to first-person POV during a key sequence, they are absolutely thrilling, and even non-fans of the sport will get an adrenaline rush from watching them. Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s score is the below-the-line MVP of the film—utilizing a wide variety of instrumental and vocal pieces to accompany the teens through their turbulent emotions, their music does an excellent job of complementing and enhancing the film’s sense of mood, drawing the viewers in to the characters’ emotional states at key moments.

Although La Pampa follows the expected plot beats of a coming-of-age film that mixes elements of coming out and macho sports culture in a small town, it is nevertheless a rewarding viewing experience that deftly captures the power of friendship and the struggle to define oneself at the brink of adulthood. If nothing else, it is worth watching for the promising talent that is revealed both in front of and behind the camera, and it is hopefully the launching pad for future stars of the rising generation of French actors and filmmakers.