Mother and Son (2022) (Un Petit Frère)

Mother and Son is an involving, compassionate film by Léonor Serraille that poignantly shows the difficulties and the effects on a family – both positive and negative – of immigration into a strange country.

The Immigrants

by Alexa Dalby

Mother and Son

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In the UK there’s the 75th anniversary of Caribbean immigration on Windrush. In France, Mother and Son, unfolding like a novel, follows a family of immigrants from Africa to France (mother and two sons) over decades from 1989. The French title is Un Petit Frère (which translates as ‘the kid brother’) and his meditative voiceover links the film’s three sections, the same structure as Moonlight.

The mother, Rose, (a magnetic Annabelle Lengronne) brings two of her young sons to Paris from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Why is never explained, though you can infer from hints.

At first the three stay with relatives in their cramped high-rise flat but they soon outstay their welcome. Rose refuses to compromise. She finds work as a chambermaid in a hotel. We see a rounded portrait – she is strong-willed, high-spirited and charismatic but impetuous and flawed. Her relatives try to marry her off to someone steady but unexciting (Jean-Christophe Folly), but she wants to choose her own men, while urging her sons to work hard, be successful and not let anyone see them crying – “cry in your head”.

The middle section focuses on her elder son Jean (Stéphane Bak) now grown up and responsible for his little brother Ernest (Kenzo Sambin), living in Rouen, where Rose, still working in Paris, visits at weekends. He succumbs to the pressure of being an African in French society and has lost his childhood ambitions. Rose’s relationships with white men bear comparison to Fabienne in Saint Omer.

Years later, the final section concentrates on adult Ernest (Ahmed Sylla), now a philosophy teacher. Though he is successful in white society, he somehow is considered neither white nor black, though he still suffers random racism from the police because of his skin colour. But ‘depression is for white people, not for us’ warns Rose.

Mother and Son is a terribly sad and moving story of the destruction of a family – and perhaps its rebuilding in a different form. Rose reappears through the years in the stories of her sons, older, but still as captivating and unbowed. As an adult, Ernest starts to understand how she struggled – rightly or wrongly – to be herself and give her sons a new life in a new country.

Mother and Son (Le Petit Frère) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 30 June 2023 in the UK.

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