“Stella,” Sylvie Verheyde’s splendid 1977-set film about schooling, culture and social class, plunges its 11-year-old heroine, and by extension the viewer, into a series of different educational environments, each distinct and characterized by an overwhelming physicality. Seldom has the process of education been expressed so thoroughly through all the senses, and seldom has a film about upward mobility granted so much energy and value to the lower rungs of the ladder. Vibrant, magnificently thesped coming-to-consciousness pic could spark genuine arthouse interest.
A wryly philosophical Stella (Leora Barbara), whose parents run a boisterous working-class bar, lands, by a fluke, in an exclusive Paris high school. Though well versed in soccer, mixology and pop music, Stella soon realizes she lacks the requisite knowledge to survive on this alien planet. An accidental friendship with class brain Gladys (Melissa Rodrigues), daughter of Jewish-Argentinean intellectuals, introduces her to literature, which drastically changes her outlook but only marginally improves her grades.
Verheyde, whose impressive 1999 “Un frere” traced a more decadent trajectory of adolescent transformation, here immerses her central character in stimulating, interactive surroundings. The local café positively overflows with wine, women, playing cards and song, the handheld camera tracking Stella as she weaves her way through throngs of reveling regulars. Some members of this de facto family prove less than avuncular in their attentions, while others, like her lowlife knight errant Alain-Bernard (Guillaume Depardieu), can be counted on to forge her parents’ signatures, if not to help with schoolwork or provide insight into what is meant by “the Camps” (reportedly responsible for turning her English teacher crazy-mean).
“Stella Dallas”-type choices between respectability and family roots are never even on the table. Stella’s mother (Verheyde standby Karole Rocher) may behave more like a barmaid than a responsible parent, and her father (Benjamin Biolay) more like a dissolute gypsy lothario than a pere de famille, but Stella’s loyalty asserts itself fiercely and unwaveringly.
Despite her expanding cultural horizons, Stella stays faithful to her disreputable summer friend, Genvieve (Laetitia Guerard), in the North of France, where the two engage in innocent play, careful to avoid Genvieve’s scary alcoholic father.
Young Barbara plays the immensely likeable Stella with slightly sardonic self-deprecation, balanced by a curiosity that rejects nothing. Verheyde’s ultimate concept of education is one of synthesis rather than exclusion, incorporating the good, the bad and the ugly.
Casual period reconstructions and light-suffused lensing are superb.