Stories for kids are allowed a certain leeway when it comes to background and believability: No one really gets hung up on not knowing why Little Red Riding Hood’s granny lives in the middle of the woods, or even why Red doesn’t have a real name. In film, it’s pretty much the same, yet when it’s a movie meant for adults about a child, and the adult audience is supposed to be guided into reconnecting with the fears and loneliness of their nine-year-old selves, then more of the “whys” are needed.
With “Tomorrow and Thereafter,” actress-director Noémi Lvovsky expects viewers to be so taken with her young protagonist and her unbalanced mother that they’ll treat the whole thing as a precious fairy tale of peril and liberation, yet there’s something so deeply personal here (or perhaps so deeply French) that it’s difficult to imagine just who it’s made for exactly. Certainly not those who cringe at the presentation of mental illness as a romanticized state of semi-grace. Or those who feel that fairy tale metaphors, replete with frequent recourse to the four elements, are over-used in cinema, as is yet another appropriation of John Everett Millais’ iconic painting “Ophelia.”
Lvovsky often returns to mothers and daughters (“Camille Rewinds,” “Life Doesn’t Scare Me”), and here she’s attempted to go deep into the insecurity of childhood, exacerbated by an unstable mother whose attachment to her daughter is unquestioned even when her inability to function is at its most acute. Presumably Lvovsky and co-writer Florence Seyvos consciously chose to place these two in a sort of bubble, with barely a connection to other people, in order to reproduce the distorted world perspective of a little girl, but situating the film in this limbo of child-adult perception just doesn’t work.
Mathilde (Luce Rodriguez) and her mother (Lvovsky) appear before the school psychologist (India Hair) to discuss the fact that the girl has no friends in class, but Mom (who’s frustratingly given no name) doesn’t process anything substantive that’s said. She’s kooky, the kind of person who goes to a wedding boutique and walks out wearing a bridal gown, saying she’s going to marry life. To say she’s irresponsible would be an understatement, and although Mathilde’s father (Mathieu Amalric) is full of tenderness and apparently lives in the same city, he allows his kid to remain with his ex, a woman who’s clearly incapable of looking after her (and by the way, where’s money coming from for the bills, clothes, food?).
As a way of making up for yet another mess, the mother gives Mathilde a pet owl, who magically speaks to the little girl when they’re alone in her room and also telepathically (the bird is warmly voiced by Micha Lescot). Though he doesn’t always give the best advice, at least the owl provides companionship, of which Mathilde is sorely in need. Neither she nor her mother have any friends or family apart from the child’s father, who’s only on Skype except in an emergency, and despite that initial, disastrous meeting with the psychologist, there’s no recognition at school that Mathilde needs help.
Lvovsky inserts a fairy tale set in a forest, and she includes several sequences of Mathilde underwater, like a submerged Ophelia. There’s fire when a frustrated Mathilde sets alight the living room curtains, and earth comes in earlier, when the girl sympathetically buries a teaching skeleton she steals from school, concerned the soul of the dead man won’t be at peace. In other words, all the elements but air are covered, though perhaps that’s included each time the owl — and a beautiful owl it is, too — spreads its wings.
The film had a troubled production: Young Rodriguez’s unavailability late in the shoot meant Lvovsky needed to rewrite an ending, in which she jumps ahead in time to show an adult Mathilde (Anaïs Demoustier) doing a sort of interpretive dance in the pouring rain with her mother. It doesn’t work.
Lvovsky’s decision to play the mother as pleasantly nutty rather than something darker is meant to reproduce how Mathilde herself feels about her unstable parent, yet it comes off as overly sweet and theatrical. Fortunately, Rodriguez is quite an accomplished actress, projecting determination and vulnerability; she’s the one non-cutesy character in the whole film, providing a much-needed core truthfulness. Piano works by Sibelius and Poulenc are pleasantly used, but it’s Alela Diane’s song “Oh My Mama” that really works in matching mood to music.