It takes a hard-knocks teen prostitute to shove some order and sense into the head of an awkward, barely formed adolescent boy in actor Isild Le Besco’s second feature, “Charly.” Made with the same quality of immediacy as her debut “Half-Price,” “Charly” is more assured if slightly underdone, but emboldened by Julie-Marie Parmentier’s strong sangfroid performance as the unsentimental hooker. A fall 2007 Gaul release preceded the film’s fest rollout in Rotterdam and Buenos Aires, with Le Besco’s name likely to pique interest in Euro markets.
Dissolute, bored 14-year-old Nicolas (Le Besco’s younger brother Kolia Litscher) lives with his elderly foster parents (Jeanne Mauborgne, Kadour Belkhodja), but they can’t seem to offer him any guidance for his schoolwork or as a young lad on the edge of adulthood. With his long mop of hair, large lips and soft features, Litscher’s Nicolas can easily be mistaken for a dumpy-looking girl at first glance, and the confusion seems quite deliberate on Le Besco’s part. Pointedly, Nicolas is neither here not there.
A loner at school, the boy seeks out some advice from teacher Francois (Philippe Chevassu), who warns him that since he’s lazy, reads little and is poor at spelling, he has an uphill academic climb. Looking sad and confused, Nicolas’ telling response, “I’m waiting for the future to come,” is the pivotal point of Le Besco’s narrative.
Finding a copy of Frank Wedekind’s revolutionary play “Spring Awakening” left behind by Francois, Nicolas finds a postcard of a seascape at Belle-Ile-en-Mer, and determines this is his new destination. Nabbing cash at home, he hitches a ride with a seemingly kindly grandfather (Jean-Max Causse) to a small town where he crosses paths with hooker Charly, who appears to be in a hurry to get back to her trailer home.
Whatever makes Charly willing to take in this lost child amounts to a web of psychological motives that Le Besco shrewdly leaves to the viewer. One hard look — Parmentier has sharp eyes that could cut glass — and she senses that Nicolas is a project, but one perhaps worth working on.
The rest of pic is consumed with Charly instructing the boy on how to live and fend for himself, from washing to doing dishes to cleaning up after himself. At the beck and call of her john (heard and only seen from a distance), she rules at home, and Nicolas slowly gets the knack of her rulebook. Pic evolves into a furtive morality tale in which a young girl forced into the sex biz is able to teach an even more helpless youth some life essentials — including a brief tutorial on sex.
In return, Nicolas recites the climactic scene from “Spring Awakening” with Charly, and it dawns on the viewer that the kid has actually been reading, amid his constant (and amusing) daydreams of sea creatures. A return home to his guardians, after a brief visit to the coast, seems inevitable, although managed in a far-too-abrupt fashionby Le Besco.
Litscher is just this side of being as bored as his character, but Parmentier stands as a fervent counterforce, arriving onscreen just in time. Production elements are naturally rough, and the helmer’s brother, cinematographer Jowan, effectively uses the camera to capture action in the moment, almost racing to keep up with the actors.