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“Strong female protagonists are my trademark,” the Swiss-Québécois director concurred, sitting in an Old Montreal restaurant to discuss her new feature, Et au pire, on se mariera.

“Adolescence is also my trademark. That was a pivotal stage in my life. It was a difficult period for me, where I had to quickly comprehend a certain number of things, living in a dysfunctional family.”

That put her on common ground with Sophie Bienvenu, with whom she collaborated to adapt the latter’s 2011 novel from which the film gets its title, about a 13-year-old girl named Aïcha (Sophie Nélisse) who falls in love with an older man (Jean-Simon Leduc) and is at odds with her single mom (Karine Vanasse).

The movie, like the book, starts off innocently enough, appearing to be a standard coming-of-age tale about a misguided teenage crush. But Pool takes her time, peeling away layers of mystery to reveal dark secrets from the girl’s past.

“The novel is very powerful,” she said. “It’s all told from the perspective of this young girl. It seems childish at first, and the girl is a bit cliché, but we gradually enter her bubble, and the labyrinth of her suffering. 

“What I loved about the novel is it’s not black and white. There is not good or bad love. You can love someone sincerely and do them serious wrong. Those grey zones interested me. I’m someone who doubts things; I’m not into certitudes.”

Finding the right actress to play Aïcha was essential, and it wasn’t easy. Pool was immediately drawn to Nélisse, whose career was launched in 2011 with her starring role in Philippe Falardeau’s Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar.

Nélisse first auditioned for Pool in 2013 — around the time she appeared in the Hollywood Holocaust drama The Book Thief — and was offered the part on the spot, but she declined due to the film’s sensitive subject matter.

“There were too many sex scenes, which I wasn’t comfortable with,” Nélisse said.

Three years later, it was time to shoot, and Pool still hadn’t found her lead. Nélisse was offered the role again, and this time she accepted.

“I reread the script and found it incredible,” Nélisse said. “I couldn’t pass it up. I talked to Léa, because I was insecure about the sex scenes. She listened to me and we modified them so I was more comfortable.”

By then the script had acquired new meaning for the actress, who had begun seeing her current boyfriend, four years her senior.

“All the lines she hears — ‘You’re like a sister to me,’ ‘I like spending time with you, but it can’t go any further’ — I had been told all those things,” said Nélisse, 17, who recently finished high school. “So when I read the script, it was like it was written for me.”

Nélisse inhabits the role of Aïcha, who roller-skates around town, acting like a kid one minute and a precocious teen the next. And while her dramatic range allowed the actress to probe the depths of the film’s harsher moments, it was Nélisse’s guilelessness that won Pool over.

“I had seen her in films that were more Hollywood and I didn’t want that,” the director said. “I liked her ability to go from one emotion to another, and be a real adolescent. I wanted a kid who could roll her eyes and tell her mother off without it feeling forced.”

Et au pire, on se mariera reunites Pool with Vanasse, who had her first big-screen break playing a young girl struggling to find her place in the world in the director’s 1999 film Emporte-moi.

Ironically, considering what she went through with Nélisse, in this case it was Pool who was hesitant.

“I wasn’t sure,” Pool admitted. “I wanted her for the part, but she had never played a mother, and she’s young. I still saw little Karine who I directed 20 years ago. I hadn’t made the switch to mom. But she said, ‘No, no, I want to do it! Audition me.’

“I felt awkward. I said, ‘Ben non, Karine. I’m not going to audition you.’ But we did it, and immediately I saw the chemistry between them. Sophie was more solid with her there.”

For Vanasse, whose career has included roles in Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, American TV shows Pan Am and Revenge, the CTV hit Cardinal and this summer’s Quebec blockbuster De père en flic 2, it was an opportunity to reconnect with her roots.

“Sometimes you dream of working again with directors who have had an impact on you,” Vanasse said. “She gave me my first push, 20 years ago. For her to acknowledge that is significant. It’s nice to recognize how much my career has changed, and to see the arrival of a new actress (Nélisse), who is amazing.”

Although her part in the film is relatively small, it represented no less of a challenge for Vanasse, both in terms of her performance and the heightened emotional context it created.

“I was really stressed for this project,” she said. “It represented so much. I wanted to be up to the occasion, to be there for Sophie and Isabelle (Nélisse’s younger sister, who plays Aïcha in flashback sequences). I didn’t want to just breeze in and do a couple of scenes. I needed to show humility toward the role, to acknowledge what Léa gave me, way back, and what she was giving me here by seeing something else in me.”

Courtesy: T'Cha Dunlevy, Montreal Gazette

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Directed by: 
Léa Pool
Running Time: 
Canada, Switzerland
Mehdi Djaadi, Jean-Simon Leduc, Isabelle Nélisse
Official site: 
Screenplay by: 
Sophie Bienvenu, Léa Pool

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