Nine-year-old Mathilde is on summer holidays with her father at a small seaside town. Her vacation is winding down and she’s preparing for a little dance show with her friends, all while enjoying her last bit of summer sun and beach.
But as she plays with her friends, her father reads too much into her interactions with one of her young pals. Her father’s interpretations spoil the idyllic feel of her last day of vacation — and perhaps even the placid, innocent remainder of her childhood.
Writer-director Alice Douard — along with co-writer Bastien Daret — has crafted a subtle, sun-soaked family drama about innocence, growing up and the way parental interpretations and expectations insidiously seep into children’s awareness, creating unexpected shifts in their consciousness that they may not intend.
Like a late August vacation, the film possesses the unassuming beauty and poetic pacing of the small seaside town its story takes place in. The storytelling takes its cues from the setting, and the pacing and concerns echo that of its young characters, who at the beginning exist with no rigid sense of time and expectation. Like other children, Mathilde is firmly in the moment.
With radiant lighting and cinematography and a gentle eye for detail, Mathilde’s world is portrayed as a kind of quiet paradise, sealed off from the hubbub of everyday life. She and her friends follow a rhythm of their own, exploring nature and playing games, though not everything is peaceable — the older sister of a friend teaching them the dance routine is a bit of a bully.
The overall look and feel are beautifully naturalistic, and so are the performances, especially among the children, who have an ease and authenticity in the way they talk and move. Young performer Vega Cuzytek plays Mathilde with a certain watchfulness and sensitivity, a kind of porousness that makes her unusually responsive to the shifting emotional tides around her.
The biggest undertow, though, comes courtesy of a reprimand from her father, who warns her about playing with a local boy. As viewers, we’re privy to how Mathilde’s interactions with the boy are entirely innocent. But she’s perturbed by the notions that her father has brought up, which ruffles her final day at the sea and throws up a wall between her and the rest of her friends.
“Due West” is a small yet exquisitely sensitive film, alive to the textures and feel of childhood and its innocent pleasures. But it also deftly captures when that smooth, serene surface of endless time begins to crack, and adulthood with all its complication seeps in.
Mathilde is just a little girl, and yet it is easy to project ideas and notions upon her that may or may not be true. Yet she’s alert enough to understand just a glimmer of this knowledge, and sensitive enough to internalize it, though she may not be ready to. The result is a subtly rendered moment when just a bit of her childhood becomes lost. She regains it a little at the end with an ending that feels empowering in just the right way for her character, but viewers still get the sense that she will return home, having left just a bit of her innocence behind.