Look At Me


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Look At Me
"We are spared the usual sugary score and the savant trope is nowhere to be seen. Instead we get the mess, the anger and the frustration much more common in real life." | Photo: Courtesy of Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

Youssef is nine when his mother has a stroke. This would be difficult enough for most children but Youssef is severely affected by autism and struggles to communicate at the best of times. He doesn't understand that she's in a coma and may never come home; it's not clear that anyone really tries to explain it to him. All he knows is that she's gone, that he's been forced to live in a strange place by his aunt, and that now a strange man has come to take him away.

That man is Lotfi (Nidhal Saadi), and he's not the first person one might look to for care and support. Not only has he been absent throughout his son't life but he lives in another country, where he makes his living through petty crime. His initial acquisition of the boy seems as much about perpetuating family feuds as it does about any kind of sympathy, and he has no real idea what to do with him. Naturally, Youssef has a meltdown, which only makes things worse. But Lotfi is the sort of man who responds with defiance when people tell him he can't do things, so he becomes determined to find a way of communicating with the boy, and as they gradually develop a connection he discovers something within himself that he didn't know was there. Suddenly his struggle to get custody becomes about something else entirely.

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Many viewers will be understandably cautious about a film that repeats the old pattern of using a disadvantaged character as a magical device through which a more socially acceptable character can achieve self-realisation. What makes Look At Me different is the fact that both of its central characters are undertaking parallel journeys, and although we see events mostly from Lotfi's perspective, there are plenty of opportunities to identify with Youssef. Ultimately, the boy's revelation will prove as important as his father's. Furthermore, there's no sanctification of Youssef. We are spared the usual sugary score and the savant trope is nowhere to be seen. Instead we get the mess, the anger and the frustration much more common in real life. Lotfi is forced to recognise that some of the ambitions he has for his boy are hopelessly unrealistic but he gradually comes to perceive and appreciate the boy's own aspirations.

Also intrinsic to what makes this film work is its recognition that autism is no substitute for character. Youssef is also a child with a child's perspective on the world, and he is grieving over the disappearance of his mother and gradually becoming curious about the stranger in his life. It's the depth and complexity of the characters and their relationship that gives the film its power.

Hazem Berrabah's atmospheric cinematography helps to draw us into a world that the two protagonists see in very different ways. Director Néjib Belkadhi keeps us on our toes, intercutting periods of chaos with the calm that both Lotfi and Youssef are seeking. This is a well crafted, thoughtful and absorbing film about reckoning with difficult realities and finding a place in the world.

Reviewed on: 21 Jan 2019
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Lotfi, 40, is forced to come back to Tunisia when his ex-wife is unexpectedly hospitalised. He is now in charge of his autistic son Amr, nine, who ignores the dad he has never known.

Director: Néjib Belkadhi

Writer: Néjib Belkadhi

Starring: Nidhal Saadi, Sawssen Maalej, Nidhal Saadi, Sawssen Maalej

Year: 2018

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: Tunisia, France, Qatar

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