COLCOA 2017: Heaven Will Wait, by David Bax

1 May

The COLCOA (City of Lights, City of Angels) French Film Festival is a week of French film premieres in Hollywood.

In the opening scene of Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s Heaven Will Wait, a support group of French parents whose daughters have become radicalized Islamic jihadists discuss how they lost their children to a world they don’t understand. There were signs missed and signs ignored. The danger of dismissing a teen phase is that it’s not a phase to them. It’s an intriguing start to an exploration of an incomprehensible but all too real phenomenon. Unfortunately, Mention-Schaar isn’t interested in going much deeper.

Heaven Will Wait tells two stories. One is of Sonia (Noemie Merlant), who was stopped by authorities while attempting to travel to Syria to join the fight she saw as her calling. The second is of Melanie (Naoni Armager), who makes a new Facebook friend who offers her solace in the wake of her grandmother’s death and enlightenment in the form of videos detailing the great anti-Islam Western conspiracy. While Melanie is indoctrinated, Sonia is being deprogrammed.

Except, as it turns out, those aren’t really the stories Heaven Will Wait is telling. Instead, Mention-Schaar focuses on the girls’ mothers as they struggle to understand what’s happened and inevitably come to blame themselves. Though the performances from Sandrine Bonnaire (Monsieur Hire) and Clotilde Courau (In the Shadow of Women) are quite strong, the result feels like a panicky, evening news scare tactic. Do you know what YOUR children are worshipping? It’s like Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen with jilbabs instead of blowjobs.

It doesn’t help, either, that the shock value of the subject matter fails to overcome some creaky storytelling devices. For instance, haven’t we moved past characters saying out loud what they’re typing?

Heaven Will Wait would be much better served by trying to get into the minds of the girls themselves instead of treating them like alien beings. We get hints of more layered characters in moments like the hint of Sonia bulimia. Is that a surprising contrast to her newfound piety or are the two related? It’s a shame Mention-Schaar just doesn’t seem that interested in such questions.

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