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NATHAN AMBROSIANI: TONI/TONI EN FAMILLE (2023) RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA AT LINCOLN CENTER

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Single mom with five, seeks a life

Everyone is brave in this touching study of a single mom, Toni (Camille Cottin of "Call My Agent" fame) raising five teenagers, three girls and two boys. She was once a TV pop singer but that was long ago. Two are about to leave the nest: Mathilde (Léa Lopez) is joining a dance company in Hungary; Marcus (Thmas Gioria), who's a vlogger and influencer, is off to the University of Lyon. That still leaves three young'uns. High schooler Camille (Louise Labèque), makes a surprise declaration at dinner that helps ruin Marcus' self-filmed gay coming-out, which becomes "How my family ruined my coming out." Timothée (Oscar Pauleau), in middle school, has his moment of high drama. It's hard to tell if it's a suicide attempt or alcohol poisoning, but he's rushed to hospital. When he comes to, the way his siblings all hug him shows how much they love each other. Afterwards he starts seeing a therapist again as he did when young. His need to visit dad at the cemetery hints just a little further at his special lacks and needs. Olivia (Juliane Lepoureau), the smallest, doesn't seem to be much trouble - until, of course it comes, a conflict with Timothée at school.

While each of Toni's children gets a moment, part of the point is that she hasn't found the time to feel each of them fully, so those moments don't sing. The ones that do are collective ones, which is where Toni admits she focuses. The trailer sequence par excellence is the one in the car that literally sings, when a radio station plays one of Toni's old hits and six voices are joined in wildly enthusiastic song: all you had to do was film it. Another, much more subtle, is just the six of them sitting in blue darkness watching TV and munching pizza after Mathilde's, for her, turbulent audition and doubt-riddled, tear-drenched hot shower aftermath. Marcus' failed coming out is a memorable small moment of truth and humor, of course, but its point is how flat it turns out to be. The film is full of things like this, and surges with togetherness. But in his effort to do what's necessary, the director finds little time for the unexpected - those pauses and surprises that make a film not just touching but memorable. What Toni en famille does is condense a whole TV series into a short feature film, which is remarkable, but also rather impossible - yet still fun.

Toni's university application is this film's ostensible goal, but it's an undercurrent, shyly gesturing to be let out: her lost personhood, her other, non-mom self, to be expressed, should it still be possible, through the tough process of going to university not only as a women in her forties, but with three kids and a house still to look after. Telling the kids isn't easy, and when she does, they show little enthusiasm. Her mom who pushed her into the TV singer role and wants to push her back (Catherine Mouchet) is even less understanding, a bad memory returned.

Success comes only at the end, when Toni learns she has been accepted, and we go to a special interview alongside her with a university officer who informs her of material provided online at home, plus extra course work and a tutor that are added, and warns her that a high proportion of the students like her don't finish. The final touching moment is her first day. The climax, a small beginning: when she calls one of her daughters to get talked into the courage to get out of the car and head toward the castle-like turrets of a college, in a stream of younger men and women. But for us, the viewers, this is just one thread, and the emotional center of the film has been life as a parent and the many dramas that come with having five teenagers in the house. An engaging, well-acted film.

Ambrosiani is something of a wunderkind, having directed his previous film at age 18, a horror film called Hostile at 14, and this one at 22. Toni shows him well on his way to mainstream success.

Toni/Toni en famille, 96 mins., debuted at a number of local french festivals in the summer of 2023, opening in French theaters Sept. 6. AlloCiné press rating 3.9 (78%), spectators 3.8 (76%). A DistribFilms release. Screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York (Feb. 29-Mar. 10, 2024. Showtimes:
Saturday, March 2 at 1:00pm (Q&A with Nathan Ambrosioni)
Sunday, March 10 at 8:45pm

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