‘Hawa’ Review: A Generous Contemporary Fable

‘Hawa’ Review: A Generous Contemporary Fable

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A bold celebration of taking up space in places you say you don’t belong, “Hawa” is a crowd-pleasing fable with a fluffy heart, fierce spirit, and a disarming sense of humor. These qualities also define the titular heroine of Maïmouna Doucouré’s beautiful second feature, co-written by Doucouré, Alain-Michel Blanc, Zangro and David Elkaim. Hawa is both sensitive and fearless as she roams the streets of Paris on a life-changing quest with her trusty scooter and unabashed blonde afro, viewing the world through her quirky Coke bottle glasses as she earns the help and goodwill of a parade of strangers.

Don’t be alarmed by the overcrowded group of writers here – despite the many chefs in the kitchen, “Hawa”, led by Doucouré, is as coherent and tightly structured as movies come. You may remember the gifted Doucouré’s name and recognize her style from her debut ‘Cuties’, an award winner at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival whose fate was overshadowed by an unfair and misleading controversy that erupted later that year. In her equally confident second feature, the defiant Doucouré puts the same powerful essence to work at the heart of her previous film, one that understands the complicated headspace of burdened, contemporary youth and breaks down the difference between a dash of magical realism and social drama. .

The no-nonsense youngster Hawa – someone who has no time for pity or for mindless chatter – is played by Sania Halifa (a first-timer the director discovered through casting call) with remarkable finesse and lived authenticity. A resourceful loner, the soon-to-be orphan lives with her terminally ill grandmother Maminata (famous Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, a captivating on-screen presence with her powerful voice and beautiful traditional dresses) and works at a local supermarket to make ends meet while she duo is looking for a suitable adoption home for the unique child. Though she’s often bullied for her distinctive looks and albino skin, Hawa proves to be no one’s pushover — determined to stand up for anyone who dares to mess with her, fight back with dignity and beat the mean people around her with a little help from her shy friend Erwan (Titouan Gerbier).

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With that assertive attitude, Hawa decides to take matters into her own hands regarding her future. Dissatisfied with the list of potential adopters, all lining up to give her a home after her grandmother passed away, she concludes that there would only be one person in the world she would trust as her new parent: the former First Lady of America, Michelle Obama. Doesn’t she already have enough empty space in her big house, now that her grown daughters no longer live at home? Eternally captivated by Hawa, Erwan agrees, becoming a model, compassionate friend before our very eyes, so few of us in the real world have been lucky enough to have the support of.

Bolstered by the dexterous lens of DP Antoine Sanier – delivering some really tricky and sophisticated urban set pieces – and the mystical cues of a musical score by Erwann Chandon and Niko Noki, Doucouré vividly follows Hawa in and around Paris as the young girl desperately tries to cross paths with Michelle Obama, who happens to be in town on a book tour. During the increasingly crowded part of her life, we see Hawa make her way into the bowels of a high-profile concert by French singer Yseult (playing herself), sneak into a children’s hospital to give Michelle a hearty adoption talk, confront security booms at exclusive galas, get the support of famed astronaut Thomas Pesquet (playing himself) and even end up in the chaotic baggage claim at Charles de Gaulle Airport during the film’s nail-biting climax. That last excursion would be too far-fetched even in a pre-9/11 world. But Doucouré films the incident, deftly edited by Nicolas Desmaison, with such good-natured determination that you can’t help but believe the chance that a wayward child somehow ends up next to Obama’s private jet, unaided and unharmed.

Doucouré uses Hawa’s thick glasses everywhere to manipulate her sometimes blurry vision, both physically and metaphorically in the service of her contemporary fairy tale about a rebellious soul in search of her place in the world. Once that place comes into sharp focus, the uplifting emotional influence Doucouré secretly grabs is simply breathtaking.

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