A discouraged world-class sprinter’s attitude is transformed when he meets a free-spirited young woman who runs on instinct and orange soda, in the refreshingly peculiar “Tonka.” Puppy-dog faced Gallic thesp Jean-Hugues Anglade (“Betty Blue”) writes, directs and co-stars in this willfully naive but strangely moving tale, also an admirable showcase for his real-life companion, Pamela Soo. Fests and Eurotube should find this a handy performer and enterprising offshore distribs may want to take a look.
The perky, feral Soo is irresistible in her maiden outing and first-time feature helmer Anglade displays a punchy visual sense that elevates a potentially sappy story into the realm of the earnest and touching. From opening frames, Anglade shows a real feel for the odd landscape in which much of pic is set: Charles-de-Gaulle airport and its part-industrial, part-pastoral surrounds.
Anglade’s character, known as “the sprinter,” has just disembarked from a plane and is in a taxi that stops at a nearby service station. When a young Indian woman in a sun dress tears out of the convenience store with a stolen croissant, Anglade clocks her progress as she runs barefoot along the highway and is sufficiently impressed to pursue her. Although she outruns him, they’ve connected on a karmic level and it’s only a matter of time before they’re reunited.
Tonka (Soo) lives inside a colossal hollow replica of a Coca-Cola can that revolves on an advertising spike beside the airport road. She cadges food and showers from various kindly and/or unwitting sources. In one unlikely but charming scene, she hitches a ride into Paris with well-to-do Marisa Berenson who treats her to a snazzy outfit at Kenzo. Tonka’s natural appeal is such that it’s not difficult to accept people would be generous toward her.
At 32, the injury-plagued sprinter has decided to hang up his running shoes despite the wishes of his crusty and trusty Italian coach, Pietro (Alessandro Haber); the spontaneous Tonka, 21, has always run for the sheer physical joy of it. Attempts to tame her are pointless, but she agrees to train for professional track events to renew the sprinter’s enthusiasm for his own vocation. The day of the big race is also a day of reckoning for their relationship.
Although the story is basic — and borderline dopey — it feels fresh, thanks to quirky details and winning perfs. Nice touches include Anglade and Soo buoyantly jumping rope together and a genuinely funny scene in which a post-race official demands a heartier urine sample, proclaiming: “You must pee — it’s the law.”
Soo is adorable, with sports camera-friendly vitality to burn. (Two years of serious athletic preparation prior to the shoot resulted in the musculature and moves to put her portrayal across.) Anglade is fine on both sides of the camera, although his script could have sunk under its own weight without Soo to anchor the proceedings.
Lensing takes advantage of the mechanical beauty of jumbo jets and top-notch athletes in motion, balancing open vistas and intimate close-ups as need be, filling the frame with often striking compositions and emotional clues. Gabriel Yared’s thoughtful score ranges from mellow tabla to quasi-classical to jaunty service station Muzak, and the sound design is subtle and evocative.