As a welcome break from the Hollywood Summer Silly Season and its cowardly obsession with sequels and reboots (and money, essentially), The Hedgehog will refresh the senses with its simple, quiet and yet moving drama.
Garance Le Guillermic is Paloma, an 11-year-old girl who is worldly beyond her years and planning to kill herself on her twelfth birthday. She is the second daughter of a self-obsessed, prescription-drug-dependent mother, and a politician father who is infrequently at home and even less often emotionally available. Paloma carries an old video camera and films the world of her family and the other inhabitants of their wealthy apartment building with a critical eye, narrating their foibles with a sharp tongue. When she becomes friendly with the janitor Renée Michel (Josiane Balasko) and new tenant Mr Ozu (Togo Igawa), she might just find that there are adults in the world with the depth of character to match her own.
The Hedgehog is set primarily within the apartment building these characters live, stepping outside of it for just moments in the entire film. It might seem that this would promote a sense of claustrophobia, however it perfectly suits the idea that the audience is getting a glimpse of the world as Paloma sees it. There is nothing wrong with being self-contained, and writer/director Mona Achache ensures her adaptation of Muriel Barbery’s incredibly successful novel ‘L’élégance du hérisson’ (‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’) remains simple and understated, letting the wonderful characters (and the strong performances that bring them to life) speak for themselves.
That an 11-year-old girl could be actively planning her own death might suggest that the experience will be bleak, and yet Achache manages moments of wit to lighten the tone, eventually generating a film that is both charming and heartbreaking at the same time. The development of the relationships between the three main characters is truly insightful, and it is quite wonderful to observe the impact one has on another. All of which would be impossible were any one of the three lead performances to falter, but, thankfully, none does.
That Le Guillermic was only eleven years old at the time this was filmed is extraordinary: she meets the expectations of her director (and audience) with skill and never stumbles, even in the company of great turns by her more experienced co-stars. Balasko and Igawa are both superb, with her conflicting emotions etched on Balasko’s face as Renée is drawn unwillingly out of her shell, while Mr Ozu is played with a quiet but determined grace.
The film feels snappy for much of its 100 minutes despite proceedings moving at a languorous pace, and that this is the first feature film for Achache is quite an achievement. The Hedgehog is an object lesson in the power of a simple story told well, based on performance rather than all kinds of external artifice.