"There's always a solution," goes the mantra of African-French earth mother Sonia (Felicite Wouassi), and she sure needs plenty of them, given the chaos in her family.

“There’s always a solution,” goes the mantra of African-French earth mother Sonia (Felicite Wouassi), and she sure needs plenty of them, given the chaos in her family. Francois Dupeyron’s first outing since the 2005 international hit “Monsieur Ibrahim” shows abundant heart, overcooked comic plotting and an undisciplined directorial hand. Low-budget feature piques interest for its look at Africans sidelined in bland public housing outside Paris, but the story could just as well take place in an African village, so little does it connect with anything specifically French. After an active fest tour, pic looks headed for a modest theatrical life, followed by good international tube exposure.

Sonia is the sort of woman often described as a force of nature. Forever on the move and dealing with one crisis after another with outbursts of emotion and entirely unreasonable optimism, she could be easily excused for throwing up her hands given the dilemmas posed by this particular day: Her 17-year-old, Victor, is arrested for drug dealing; younger daughter Suze is seven months pregnant; older daughter Christie is due to be married that afternoon; and her layabout husband has gambled away all the money for the wedding as well as for Sonia’s interest in a laundromat business.

It all gets dealt with, but the madly bubbling script takes a couple surprising turns that push the film’s second half into an odd, darkly comic subplot involving Sonia and her neighbor across the hall, a very old man (vet Claude Rich) who enters into a macabre pact with her. The character is creepy but Rich is marvelous, and, despite the queasy nature of the relationship, the interlude helpfully brings the shrillness level down several notches.

Wouassi sails over everyone and everything in a tornado-like performance that almost defies evaluation. She tells people off, flicks away adversity, makes things happen, never gives up and knows things will turn out OK despite all evidence to the contrary. You can only admire the strength of personality, yet one must ask if such a character could plausibly exist.

Biggest problem is the messy visual style. Film seems to have been shot through some sort of yellow filter that makes everything look simultaneously too bright and seriously jaundiced, the framing and camera moves possess no precision or coherent plan, the preponderance of all-purpose long shots is monotonous, and the pic lurches ahead like an anxious taxi in stop-and-go traffic. There are energy and contrivance to spare, plenty of frenzied behavior but little insight about the immigrant experience.

With a Little Help From Myself

France

Production

An ARP production, with the participation of Canal Plus and Cinecinema, in association with Centre National de la Cinematographie. (International sales: Kinology, Paris.) Produced by Michel Petin, Laurent Petin. Directed, written by Francois Dupeyron.

Crew

Camera (color), Yves Angelo; editor, Dominique Faysse; production designer, Patrick Durand; costume designer, Catherine Bouchard; sound (Dolby SRD), Jerome Thiault; casting, Brigitte Moidon. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 30, 2008. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations; Rome, Tokyo film festivals.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Felicite Wouassi, Claude Rich, Ralph Amoussou, Mata Gabin, Jean-Jacques Ido, Elisabeth Oppong, Fatou N'Diaye, Mamadou Dioume, Charles-Etienne N'Diaye.

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