Ariane Labed goes behind the lens to direct this affecting study of adolescence playing in Un Certain Regard

September Says

Source: The Match Factory/Element Pictures

‘September Says’

Dir: Ariane Labed. Ireland/UK/Germany. 2024. 100mins

Ariane Labed’s arresting directorial debut tells the story of two bonded siblings who have created their own world in which only they can reside — a universe which is increasingly enrapturing and troubling for the audience. September Says captures the fragility of adolescence with a preciseness and intimacy, brought to life by performances from Mia Tharia and Pascale Kann, assisted by Rakhee Thakrar as the single mother who loves them both but cannot fully enter the private sanctum of their sisterhood. Shifting from a character study into something more mysterious and haunting, September Says establishes its peculiar, arresting tone from the start.

Newcomer Pascale Kann radiates star power as the outgoing September

Based on Daisy Johnson’s 2020 novel’ Sisters’, this picture premieres in Un Certain Regard. Although it’s never specfied, the film moves betweenthe UK and an Irish holiday home. EastEnders and Sex Education star Thakrar will help raise visibility, and arthouse prospects look promising for a film whose late-reel twist is gracefully executed. Touching on mental health, puberty, loneliness and loss, September Says should benefit from strong reviews and good word-of-mouth.

Both in their teens and close in age, September (Kann) and July (Tharia) attend the same school, with combative, assertive September looking after her meeker younger sister. Their classmates label them as freaks and weirdos — among other things, September proudly lets her armpit hair grow — but once July attracts the interest of a cute boy, she makes an impetuous decision that leads to horrifying consequences. Without detailing the aftermath of July’s actions, September Says suddenly jumps forward in time as the sisters and their young mother Sheela (Thakrar) decamp to a family beach house far from the city, all of them trying to process the fallout of what took place.

Labed, a French actor born in Greece who became known for her performances in beautifully odd Greek films such as Attenberg and The Lobster, adapts Johnson’s novel with a non-judgemental eye toward these happy, strange sisters. Surrounded by conformist adolescents, September and July have active imaginations and an indomitable sense of mischief, constantly wearing colourful costumes, doing funny animal voices, or playing games like “September Says” in which the admiring July must do what September orders if she begins with “September says.” Distracted by her modest photography career but adoring her daughters, who are often the subject of her work, Sheela has passed along to her girls the importance of being a proud original, giving them the freedom to become whatever they want to be.

In its early stretches, September Says, which is far warmer and more compassionate than Labed’s films as an actor, exudes a delicate atmosphere, embedding the viewer in this family. The director and her cast never belabour the characters’ eccentricities, instead reminding us fondly of those shared childhood secrets we had with our siblings. Cinematographer Balthazar Lab avoids any hint of cutesy quirkiness in his straightforward lensing, which underlines the realities of this working-class home filled with love if not many signs of obvious material wealth. Likewise, the spare performances emphasise the everyday joy these misfits have managed to find in their otherwise  ordinary lives, reinforcing Sheela’s that only boring people are ever bored.

Newcomer Kann radiates star power as the outgoing September, benevolently bossy to impressionable July, who worships her older sister — so much so that she hasn’t fully formed her own personality while living in September’s shadow. Tharia’s nuanced turn, hinting at this late bloomer’s slowly developing poise, says a lot with a little, making July’s unexpected sexual awakening a tender, even frightening development. Indeed, the younger sister’s burgeoning maturity catapults September Says into its second half at the beach house, in which we begin to get a sense of mental-health issues which loom.

Editor Bettina Bohler inserts brief flashbacks that augur a past trauma that must finally be reckoned with, and composer/sound designer Johnnie Burn, who won an Oscar for his immersive sound work on The Zone Of Interest, crafts a psychological headspace through distorted dialogue and odd noises that tease the shock that will come. But there is nothing gimmicky about September Says’ pull-the-rug-out ending, which recapitulates the entire film’s celebration of and lament for the odd ducks who walk amongst us. We all need to find someone who understands us — for September and July, it is both glorious and heartbreaking that that person turns out to be their sister.

Production companies: Sackville Film & TV Productions

International sales: The Match Factory,

Producers: Chelsea Morgan Hoffmann, Lara Hickey, Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe

Screenplay: Ariane Labed, based on the novel Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Cinematography: Balthazar Lab

Production design: Lauren Kelly

Editing: Bettina Bohler

Music: Johnnie Burn

Main cast: Mia Tharia, Pascale Kann, Rakhee Thakrar