Review: Love According to Dalva

Written and directed by Emmanuelle Nicot, co-written by Jacques Akchoti and Bulle Decarpentries, twelve-year-old Dalva dresses and acts like a woman. One day, she’s taken away from her abusive home. She befriends a social worker and her roommate, beginning a new life and learning how to be a kid again. Starring: Zelda Samson, Alexis Manenti, Fanta Guirassy, Marie Denarnaud, Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, Sandrine Blancke and Maia Sandoz.

Attempting to tell a tale of a child abused by their own parent requires a lot of sensitivity and empathy and that’s exactly what Emmanuelle Nicot achieves with Love According to Dalva. The entire film is told through the perspective of Dalva (Zelda Samson), it’s never about the scandal of what happened to her, that sets up the story and its impact is truly felt throughout but it’s not the focus. The story follows how Dalva’s mind has been so warped that she no longer has an idea of what being a kid means, or how to have the semblance of a normal life. It’s both subtle and horrifying, to watch her so adamantly defend her previous life is harrowing. Yet there’s also a touch of hope in seeing her discover how to be a child again.

Part of why the story hits so hard is the performance from Zelda Samson, it’s incredibly impressive for an actress so young. Even purely the eye contact and icy look in her eye almost sends chills to the spine. Samson has a remarkable intensity, purely seeing her stood in her adult wardrobe is disturbing, feeling comparable to the sort of presence which Isabelle Fuhrman brings to Orphan’s Esther. While that may sound strange, it’s all about possibilities and unpredictability, as Samson’s Dalva feels capable of anything and understandably so. A quality which is gently pushed aside by the presence of Fanta Guirassy’s Samia. Another fantastic performance, she’s strong and independent but vulnerable and insecure, it’s a touching and compassionate portrayal. The two together build a moving friendship that’s a vein of warmth in a story of such cold cruelty.

That compassion is then enhanced by Alexis Manenti’s Jayden, the character feels very familiar, it’s a classic staple of troubled dramas to have the one adult who can see things through the child’s eyes. The one person who can provide both discipline and caring, and Manenti does it extremely well, he makes Jayden’s worry, understanding and frustration strongly felt. All of which is wrapped in a directorial package which feels tonally and visually reminiscent of Céline Sciamma’s work. The aesthetic is superbly strong, there’s a stunningly affecting atmosphere and it moves in such an enveloping and engaging manner. One of the things Emmanuelle Nicot achieves so well with her direction is holding onto that warmth, embracing it when so many elements of the story try to snuff it out. Nicot captures a balance that was vital to telling this story with grace and sensitivity.

Love According to Dalva is harrowing, heart-breaking and yet hopeful. It takes Dalva through a moving evolution from isolation and indoctrination to finding joy and friendship once again. She’s a feisty character and huge credit goes to Zelda Samson for truly capturing a disturbing feel to drive home how broken Dalva is in the beginning. The direction and cinematography are excellent, the atmosphere is spot on, it’s filled with a terrific cast and is a film that will undoubtedly stick with you.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

In UK & Irish Cinemas from 28 April

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