Virginie Efira shines as a single mother attempting to save her son from the French care system

All To Play For

Source: Cinando

‘All To Play For’

Dir/scr: Delphine Dologet. France. 2023

A mother’s imperfect love comes up against the bullish bureaucracy of the French care system in the sobering feature debut of writer/director Delphine Dologet. A strong central performance from Cesar-winning actress Virginie Efira (Benedetta) will likely win plaudits following the film’s Un Certain Regard premiere, and the film’s universal themes and naturalistic tone should help it travel to further festivals and arthouse audiences beyond.

Efira brings both a fighting spirit and a wounded vulnerability

All To Play For is a film rooted in hardship, yet defiantly not defined by it. The same can be said for single mother Sylvie (Efira) who lives a meagre life in Brest with her two children, teenager Jean-Jacques (an excellent Felix Lefebvre) and the younger Sofiane (Alexis Tonetti), and works a nighttime bar job to make ends meet. There’s a lightness of touch as the film presents the constantly spinning plates of Sylvie’s life — her job, her kids, her friends — in a matter of fact way that any working parent will instantly recognise. Sylvie isn’t a superhero or a saint; she’s an ordinary 40-something woman, doggedly doing the best she can and attempting to enjoy life in the process. Her kids care little for their tiny apartment, presented as something of a cosy, shambolic bolthole, or the continuous lack of money. For them, Sylvie’s unconditional love is enough.

When Sofiane is burnt in a kitchen fire while home alone, and social services remove him to a children’s home, Sylvie is initially convinced it is a mistake. Yet the everyday proof of her love for her children — that she sleeps in the living room so that they each get a bedroom, that they want nothing more than to be in her company — don’t count in the face of a system blinkered by its determination not to overlook a child in need. Ironically, Sylvie’s desperate attempts to follow state-mandated steps to becoming a ‘better’ parent soon tie her up in knots, and turn the situation from bad to worse.

Having previously won acclaim for her documentary work, including No London Today which played in Cannes ACID in 2008, Dologet brings a real-world grounding to her screenplay. She critiques the failing French child protection system — the source of much media and political consternation — without resulting to kitchen sink melodrama. Craft choices are restrained and unfussy, with the economical score highlighting rather than dictating emotional beats and brisk editing from Beatrice Herminie helping to maintain equilibrium; sequences of high drama balanced by plenty of tenderness, laughter and joy. 

Dologet also takes care to avoid easy finger pointing. Child protection officers like Madame Henry (India Hair) are clearly doing their best in a thankless job with meagre resources — even if they can be unthinkingly flippant. As Sylvie, Efira brings both a fighting spirit and a wounded vulnerability to her character. There are hints in her difficult relationship with brothers Herve (Arieh Worthalter) and Alain (Mathieu Demy) that this may be a case of history repeating itself but, despite the enormity of the situation, she refuses to succumb. It’s credit to both the screenplay and performances that Sylvie’s standing as a good mother is never in doubt — even if she may be unconventional in her approach.

That’s the uncomfortable truth laid bare in All To Play For; that any parent who doesn’t conform to conventional familial norms can leave themselves open to judgement and persecution. When the strength of a mother’s love goes up against such a broken and outdated system, it can never be a fair fight.

Production company: Curiosa Films

International sales: France TV Distribution

Producer: Oliver Delbosc

Cinematography: Guillame Schiffman

Production design: Nicolas Trabaud

Editing: Beatrice Herminie

Music: TBC

Main cast: Virginie Efira, Felix Lefebvre, Alexis Tonetti, Arieh Worthalter, Mathieu Demy, India Hair