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Samuel Theis Softie Petite Nature Review


Softie (Petite nature) | 2021 Cannes Film Festival Review

Softie (Petite nature) | 2021 Cannes Film Festival Review

Sharp Shock to Your Soft Side: Theis Mines the Uncomfortable Realities of Sexuality

In the one-hundred-and-twenty-five years since the detrimental trials of Oscar Wilde and the ‘love that dare not speak its name,’ which would evolve into the tempestuous terminology of ‘homosexuality,’ culture wars have yielded considerably in LGBTQ+ assimilation (at least in varying hierarchical intersections of privilege). For his first stint behind the camera since co-directing 2014’s Party Girl, Samuel Theis tackles a provocative intersection of class and age with Softie (Petite nature) an exploration of one young boy’s sexual awakening who also happens to be ‘from the wrong side of the tracks.’ Intriguing and provocative, it is the sort of coming-of-age narrative which would be impossible to fund or distribute in the English language for its blunt, but tasteful explorations of a child’s budding sexuality. Strong characterization and adept storytelling allow for an astounding level of authenticity even as it hews closely to a formula particularly well-utilized in French language cinema.

Forbach is a commune, or civil township, in northeastern France which shares a border (and mixed culture) with Germany. Ten-year-old Johnny (Aliocha Reinert) has lived a semi-tumultuous life with his single mother Sonia (Melissa Olexa), who has recently fled an abusive relationship with another man, forcing the family’s move (which includes his older brother and younger sister) into a nearby housing project. At the local middle school, his intelligence and sensitivity capture the attention of his new teacher, Jean Adamski (Antoine Reinartz, BPM, 2017). When a heated situation at home causes him to flee to Jean’s home, his teacher’s girlfriend Nora (Izia Higelin) also takes a liking to the child, instigating a dip into a gray zone on boundaries between teachers and their students. But Johnny’s affinity for Adamski runs deeper than his lack of a paternal figure, leading to uncomfortable situations for all parties involved.

Theis, whose Party Girl similarly dealt with hard living individuals attempting to secure pleasure and happiness the world around them denies, owes much to the filmography of Celine Sciamma, as Softie resembles her own early titles, particularly 2011’s Tomboy. In a similar sense, Lukas Dhont’s Girl (2018) also aligns with the sentiments Theis foments here, another prime example of how LGBTQ+ coming-of-age narratives are almost always neutered for the heteronormative, both in the realism of the subject matter and who is allowed to portray them.

Aliocha Reinert is exemplary in the subtle transition of Johnny’s awakening, and like many queer youths, it takes an absolute outsider to recognize and vocalize the acknowledgment of his sexuality before he’s able to himself. Theis allows for a slow build which blossoms into one of the most uncomfortably charged sexual passes in cinema but provides a slight stop gap with Antoine Reinartz’s established heterosexuality in the form of Izia Higelin (no stranger to queer cinema in Catherine Corsini’s vibrant Summertime, 2015, though she’s called upon to do little in this narrative).

The strength of the film transpires between Reinert and newcomer Melissa Olexa as his well-meaning mother. An explosive sequence in the third act over family dinner is a showstopper, and it’s clear there’s an understanding between mother and son which transcends their dialogue in ways which are intriguing and refreshing—we’re left, strangely (considering the dynamic we’ve become conditioned to), wanting to see more between them.

Ending on a fantastically hypnotic note, set to Deep Purple’s “Child in Time,” (which recalls the finale of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, where Denis Lavant dances unforgettably to Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night”), Softie is a precise narrative set in a particular place, concerning specific people who will be forced to contend with a familiar yet controversial reality. Perhaps its familiarity is a mistaken angle on a sobering normalization.

Reviewed on June 9th at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival – Critics’ Week – Special Screening. 93 Mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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