Road to the London Film Festival: Hands Up (Les Mains en L’air)

I’ll admit that my familiarity with the works of French director and political activist Romain Goupil have been next to none and most of the reasoning is to do with how I’ve lived my own life as a film watcher and what life has done to drive me from going away from my movie comfort zone. It’s one of the things I appreciate doing now that I don’t have as much to worry about or do as I have been used to.

With that, it makes me glad that this is his first film I have seen. Whilst it hasn’t won the awards and recognition that his other movies have done before, it is a film that has a place for me in this festival season in trying to go in different directions and work with almost every one.

Hands Up is a film that revolves around two primary things; Childhood and Illegal immigration. Neither of these topics is new to cinema and is always a topic of discussion in various forms of media and social debates, but Hands Up manages to fuse them together to make a charming, whimsical movie with a message embedded into its core rather than slapped on the screen.

The film follows the story of Miranda, a young 10 year old Chechen girl who enjoys the company of her friends, her closest being brother and sister Blaise and Alice. Youssef, another close friend, is taken away by police and, along with the rest of his family, is deported from France. Milana’s family, with only one having actual French citizenship, looks to be next and as a resort, Milana stays with Blaise and Alice and the group comes up with what would be a controversial way to make sure Milana doesn’t get deported like Youssef.

The real stars of the show are the child actors. The story revolves around them but the reason they are so compelling is that they act like any group of good friends at their age would be. They argue and bicker like kids, they laugh at crazy things like kids, they mess things up and scheme like kids but most importantly, they bond like kids and their friendship is what leads the story to its conclusion. Goupil understands childhood innocence and it shows in how he gets the kids to act like kids instead of trying to mould them into adults as it seems like the way most film makers seem to think it should be done.

Much of it reminded of the whimsical comedies of the 80s like The Goonies and Little Rascals where a group of friends would go on adventures or do something for the purposes of something exciting and childlike, but there was something more grounded about how this group went about that made it even more charming in how it went about.

The strongest adult role, mostly because it’s the other story the movie focuses on, is Cendrine played superbly by Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi. As mother to both Blaise and Alice, she becomes Milana’s biggest ally, being the one to take her in and join her family temporarily. Her leftist attitude and belief in not going for the simple, ‘string pulling’ answer is one that frustrates almost everyone around her, and it doesn’t quite go the way she would expect it to go nearer the end, but her character seem to bridge the gap between the fun loving, bonding nature of the kids and the structured, rubber stamp, black and white approach of the adults.

Not to say it is all fun and enjoyment from the kids with no problems. The other main context of the film is illegal immigration and one that has been shown as an issue to many first world nations across the world and Goupil is not afraid to show this being discussed in several contexts, including a scene where Cendrine and her brother, played by Hippolyte Girardot, have a very loud row about the consequences to the people around her of keeping Milana out of the eyes of the police and the risks it had from the offset. The message is definite and Goupil doesn’t shy away from it but it never felt to me like it was prominent or the only important thing the film had to give. It was kind of refreshing to see that and to see it from this perspective rather than the way it is addressed in the media, especially for many years in the British media.

I did have some problems with it. Some you may take as nitpicky, and I’ll understand if you do, but with a film as enjoyable as this to me, sometimes the problems stand out a bit more.

The story begins and ends with Milana, in flashbacks, talking about her life in Paris from 2067 talking about 60 years before in 2009 when she was aged 10. Whilst this seems like a great concept, it’s not really expanded on and kind of feels unnecessary to the story. It neither shows the viewer what happened or why she ended up where she did 60 years later and as a result, feels weirdly placed.  It doesn’t help that it makes the ending feel rather abrupt and the real context isn’t shown. Is this a documentary being taped? A kind of retrospective piece on the events of 60 years ago done by the news media? It’s one of the things I wish was expanded on.

Also, with some of it I could understand, is the Chechen language not being put in subtitles like the French. I have always had a problem with films not subtitling long lines of dialogue, and even scenes, for other audiences because it takes me out of the story. It was my big problem with the critically acclaimed Italian Neo Realism film Rome: Open City when I first saw it some time ago. At the same time, unlike Rome, there is some context to it. The Chechen language is foreign and with Milana being an immigrant from another country adapting to French culture, like how other immigrants adapt to the English language, it makes a balance of how it is difficult for one to get into another and some of it is done very well. I just never like it being used too often and always like to understand the characters I am watching.

The other problem I had with it was that, whilst I understand why it was done this way, I feel there was a tad too much context into the adults representing the deeply rooted anti-immigration movement and the kids representing the other side of the coin. This may merely be to do with the fact that I haven’t had the experience that others have; I just thought that sometimes the police and media would treat the kids as downright heartened criminals. Not to say I expected the media parts to be quirky news pieces on a situation that serious but it didn’t feel that realistic to me.

Apart from those problems, Hands Up is a great piece of social commentary in the brink of many countries asking about how to deal with immigrants, illegal or otherwise, but at the heart of it, it’s a story about childhood. It’s a story about how kids bond together for a cause that they may not understand fully, but know that it’ll ruin their tightly knitted friendship if it goes the way it goes. It’s defiantly something to check out and one I didn’t regret getting out of my movie comfort zone to see.

Hands Up is being screened on the 23rd and 24th of October, with the latter fully booked. The former can be booked here.