Movie Review - Reality check - Set Me Free

Set Me Free a grim tale of adolescence

In this dark tale of girlhood, Hanna (Karine Vanasse) makes the troubled teens of paperback literature look like lightweights. At only 13, Hanna copes with a mentally unbalanced mother who slaves so that Hanna's unemployed father can work on his poetry and a home life defined by the constant tension of not enough money and parents unable to achieve their desires. Hanna's father is an unsuccessful, embittered artist who relishes his suffering like a fine wine, holding it close to him as his cross to bear. A refugee from the Holocaust, that trauma seems to have made him callous and selfish and unable to see his own injustices that he inflicts on his lover and children.

Hanna's escape from such grubby reality is the movie house where she becomes obsessed with Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre Sa Vie and its willful prostitute heroine Nana, played by Anna Karina, who appears in clips from Godard's film at several points in Set Me Free as Hanna's muse and inspiration. As with the people or films or books that take on an almost sacred importance for the teenagers who adopt them as their personal mantras, Godard's vivid portrait of Nana's French demimonde has a sheen of glamour for Hanna. Set in working-class Montreal during an era (the early '60s) and an age (13) more often seen in nostalgic terms, Set Me Free does what many recent films about young girls' coming-of-age propose; countering sweet, sentimental remembrances with jaggedly realistic, detailed ones.

Set Me Free opens on the kind of event that sets the terms of this mostly bittersweet bildungsroman as Hanna vacations at her grandmother's house in the countryside. After a day swimming, Hanna sees drops of blood forming on the ocean's boulders at her feet. "That's a woman's lot," says her grandmother, who greets news of Hanna's first period with a sigh.

Very few glimpses into the ways of the adult world in Set Me Free offer much more in the way of hopefulness, probably because Hanna's entry point into womanhood is a mother who seems pulled to pieces by its demands. Her dreams of designing clothes long evaporated, Hanna's mother (Pascale Bussieres) works late hours as a sweat shop seamstress, gnawing at bars of chocolate like a wino drags from his bottle to sustain her energy.

One of the most painful scenes in the film finds Hanna's mother seemingly wavering on the brink of a nervous breakdown, her eyes panicked as her body is seen from a low angle, careening, wobbling and off-balance. Director Léa Pool then shows the larger picture — that Bussieres is ice skating with her daughter — but we get, in this clever initial withholding of information, some sense of the disorienting blur of the world seen through the eyes of a woman too exhausted to cope. When she and Hanna collapse into a giggling heap on the ice, Bussiere's laughter soon turns to sobs as one cathartic physical release seems to set off a heartbreaking chain reaction.

Set Me Free is a searing picture of the sustenance and affection Hanna continually seeks from her mother but is unable to receive. It's the neediness that seems to propel her into the movie theater to find an alternative model of female determination in Karina, to engage in a sweet flirtation with a female classmate and develop a crush on the only adult, her teacher (Nancy Huston), who shows any concern for Hanna's increasingly fragile emotional state.

Set Me Free is an often tragic, difficult story of girlhood whose darkness can be unrelenting. Very few circumstances in Hanna's life, other than the escapism of the movie house, offer more than another tutorial in life's cruelty, whether Hanna is being molested by an unctuous local baker or having a grotesque first sexual experience on Montreal's tenderloin. Tinctured with a feminist perspective, Set Me Free tends to see the world as a series of shiny traps set for young girls, a difficult path to adulthood made worse without a capable female role model.

But like Tobias Wolff's memoir, This Boy's Life, Set Me Free presents a picture of childhood unbuffered by a stable home life, financial security or functional adult role models. It's an experience that may, unfortunately, speak for many more coming of ages than the sunny nostalgia movies more often preach.

Sept. 15, 8 p.m. Rich Auditorium, High Museum