Initially a sweetly entertaining Franco-Jewish family saga set in the drab 1980s, writer-director Carine Tardieu’s “The Dandelions” slowly slides from dramedy into full-on drama. Adaptation of a novel by co-scribe Raphaele Moussafir continues the helmer’s exploration of parent-offspring relationships from a female p.o.v., though it lacks the incisive focus of her debut, “In Mom’s Head.” Late-summer release, starring A-listers Agnes Jaoui, Isabelle Carre and Isabella Rossellini, is still in theaters locally and has offshore appeal (Benelux rights have already been sold). Montreal, Busan and Rome berths will kick off a long series of screenings at general, Jewish and kid-focused fests.
Stranded somewhere between realism (especially in its spot-on depiction of the early ’80s) and a more magical look at childhood with occasional visual flights of fancy (just like in “Head”), the pic tells the story of 9-year-old Rachel Gladstein (Juliette Gombert).
Rachel has grown up under the suffocating attention of her Tunisian-Jewish mother, Colette (Jaoui), in contrast with the disinterest of her largely absent father, Michel (Denis Podalydes), whose only topic of conversation, when he can be bothered to open his mouth, is the Shoah. Since Rachel also shares her bedroom with her sickly-looking maternal grandmother (Judith Magre), who surrounds herself with portraits of the dead, it’s no wonder Colette believes her young girl is in need of a visit or two to a kind shrink, Madame Trebla (Rossellini).
As the pic progresses, however, and Rachel starts to hang out with wild-child classmate Valerie (Anna Lemarchand), the daughter of an uncomplicated if scandalously single mother, Catherine (Carre), it slowly becomes clear that the shy little girl just needs a playmate her own age, and is probably the sanest of the Gladsteins.
Tardieu adapted the book with original scribe Moussafir, and they have imposed a more classical story structure on what was a motley compilation of recollections (inspired by a one-woman show). But in the attempt to construct a fully formed family, in which each member has her or his cross to bear, what made the original such a compelling read — namely, the outlook of a sassy 9-year-old on a world she only partially comprehends — is further pushed into the background. The confessional visits to Madame Trebla are now only perfunctorily connected to the narrative, and the mother-daughter bond is but one of several occasionally shifting relationships. The fact that “The Dandelions” was cut by three editors is of no help in keeping things focused.
Thankfully, the appealing cast ensures auds will stick with the characters throughout. Jaoui, of Tunisian-Jewish descent herself and as plain and dowdy as she’s ever appeared onscreen, credibly incarnates the overly protective matriarch who’s so focused on making the world a better place for her daughter that she sort of forgets about Rachel’s particular needs.
As her hubby, Podalydes insightfully charts Michel’s awakening to what he has and stands to lose via his unexpected relationship with the luminous Catherine, a role Carre limns with ease. Gombert and Lemarchand are engaging as the two complementary girls, with Gombert especially striking as the material grows darker. And Rossellini brings the right aura to what’s essentially an extended cameo.
Production designer Jean-Marc Tran Tan Ba has a ball re-creating the stifling 1980s provincial home of the Gladsteins and its more hippie-ish equivalent for Catherine. He also delivers outstanding work in a few sequences that visually translate little Rachel’s imagination. Equally spot-on is the work of costume designer Melanie Gautier and d.p. Antoine Monod.