'Everything to play for' review: Virginie Efira excels in foster care drama with no easy fixes

‘Everything to play for’ review: Virginie Efira excels in foster care drama with no easy fixes

It wouldn’t be today’s Cannes Film Festival without at least one film starring the prolific French-Belgian actress Virginie Efira, who has become a fixture on the Croisette since starring in director Justine Triet’s second film, Victoryin 2016.

Last year, Efira was Serge Bozon’s topliner Don Juan and that of Alice Winocour Memories of Pariswhile also shining in the Venetian selection by Rebecca Zlotowski, Other people’s children. (The latter two films were both recently released by Music Box in the US)

Everything to play for

The bottom line

An incisive portrait of motherhood.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Launch: Virginie Efira, Félix Léfebvre, Arieh Worthalter, Mathieu Demy, India Hair
Director, screenwriter: Delphine Deloget

1 hour and 52 minutes

This year the actress, who started out hosting quizzes, talk shows and doing sketch comedy on TV, arrives in Cannes with a pair of dark dramas: Valérie Donzelli’s Just the two of us and first-time writer-director Delphine Deloget Everything to play for (Nothing to loose).

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Deloget’s gripping debut, about a single mother struggling to regain custody of her youngest son from the French child protection services, presents Efira at her toughest and most polished, playing a woman cornered by a system that leaves her no easy way out.

When we first meet her character, Sylvie, she holds her own as the mother of a teenager, Jean-Jacques (the excellent Félix Lefebvre, from the François Ozon film The summer of ’85), and 8-year-old Sofiane (newcomer Alexis Tonetti, also amazing), bartending at a club full of sweaty, drunk men his age. Unable to get a good night’s sleep, Sylvie is always tired and on the run, whether it’s to stock the bar, take her children to school or look after her brother, Hervé (Arieh Worthalter), who is practically a little boy.

Initially, Everything to play for (the best French title simply translates as Nothing to loose) feels like a dramedy about a 40-year-old mother with too much on her plate. Even the opening scene, in which we see Jean-Jacques taking Sofiane to the hospital after the latter burns himself while preparing fries, causing a small fire in their kitchen, seems more like a comic anecdote.

But that incident comes back to haunt the family and then some when a child protection worker, Mademoiselle Henry (India Hair), shows up a few weeks later with two policemen and takes Sofiane to a foster centre. It’s a heartbreaking sequence to witness, and despite the fact that Sylvie is clearly a loving mother, the French authorities believe she is a danger to her child.

Since then, Everything to play for turns into a downward spiral drama in which Sylvie repeatedly tries and fails to get Sofiane back, enlisting a lawyer (Audrey Mikondo) and her more responsible brother, Alain (Mathieu Demy), to help her. The more she insists, the more difficult it gets, sometimes because Sylvie tries mashed potato it lasts and is not stable, even if its instability is caused by what is happening.

The other reason is that Mademoiselle Henry seems completely blind to the person in front of her, refusing to acknowledge that Sylvie can be thoughtful and chaotic at the same time. Earlier, we see her helping Jean-Jacques with his trumpet practice or digging up a toy that Sofiane can’t find in her bedroom. She is absolutely doing the best she can with her children, and as a result she has no real private life, but the French authorities are missing this crucial fact.

Indeed, Everything to play for at times it can seem like an argument against a country’s sometimes overbearing and Kafkaesque social system, which is rare in French films which tend to be financed with state money. Whether Sylvie is facing child protection workers, the police or a judge, she continues to fight a losing battle, and as the weeks and months go by she begins to lose her mind.

Efira plays these scenes so authentically that when she freaks out, as her character usually does, we believe it. But her interpretation is also imbued with tender and tragic moments, such as when Sylvie is forced to meet Sofiane in the reception center while a chaperone observes, in a scene as devastating as it is frustrating: social workers can’t see what we see? Do they even know what love is?

Deloget stacks the deck so high on the system that it feels a little unfair, but it makes for compelling drama. He pushes her heroine to the brink, leading to an ending in which Sylvie is faced with a terrible decision: accept the reality of her situation or put her motherly love first. The choice she makes may not seem wise, but then again, Everything to play for it goes beyond simple questions of right and wrong to show us what matters most.