With a haphazard visual look but remarkably sensual and cohesive mise-en-scène, young actress Isild Le Besco's second fictional feature Charly is a continually intimate portrait of young dislocation. Details are thin—a young boy, Nicholas (Kolia Litscher), slow at school, lay-about at the home of his grandparents (Jeanne Mauborgne and Kadour Belkhodja), after being questioned by a teacher about how he sees his future leaves home to hitchhike to the sea. Inspired by two items the teacher leaves in a cafe—a photo of Belle-Île used as a bookmark in Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening—but inspired more by the spirit of leaving than the actual physical activity, Nicholas' journey seems as half-assed as his life at home. Waylaid on his rather lazy path, he is picked up by Charly (Julie-Marie Parmentier), whose preternatural sense as a small town streetwalker seems to see all the vulnerabilities in the boy, and she immediately goes about absorbing him into her daily routine of cleaning, eating, and sleeping in her trailer home outside of town.
Charly, like so many young films before it, is high on the gas of the French New Wave, but with a total absence of pretension behind its inartistic handheld DV camerawork, Le Besco does great honor to those before her by creating a small, complete, and tenderly felt film out of material seemingly shot on the fly over only a handful of days. Parmentier's performance as an abnormally beyond-her-years domestic chatterbox is the film's highlight and probable reason behind its title. Her idiosyncratic energy and personality are an expression of a youth who has molded her unhappy and unnatural life into one of control and regiment.
Nicholas' journey is a threadbare arc and not the film's core, as Litscher's silent and interior performance gives little hint at what the boy is thinking or wanting, and it only when he falls into the orbit of others—the magnificent and strangely atonal scenes with his grandparents, and then the magnetic draw of Charly—that Le Besco's seemingly haphazard style crystallizes. The verité observation suddenly clicks when Charly takes Nicholas through the rigors of buying them bread, getting water from the outside water faucet, how to slam the door, how to wipe the tablecloth, how to mechanically live a very different life, swapping discontent for authority. Nicholas learns his own way, trying not to wrest control of a home but instead reading and practicing mastering Wedekind's text.
The potential quotidian euphoria of such mastery can be seen in small ways in Charly's instinctive attempt to get Nicholas into the habit of fixing her household, but burns even more brightly one morning when Nicholas has Charly run through lines from Spring Awakening with him. Through these examples of routine and control the two communicate on a very minor, but very touching level that can only exist in an evocation of something mutual, however subtly felt and unexpressed. It is a mutual affinity based on young life usurped in strange ways. In this tiny evocation of sharing, seemingly subsumed when Charly prattles on about folding jackets or scrubbing pots, but blossoming in, for example, an unreal digital lap dissolve between Nicholas' dreams and his nondescript present, and later in stupendous digital images of the sea, Le Besco reveals that she has mined things that have passed by our notice until she so desires to align a moment of sensuality and blow it all up on the screen for us.