Few things are certain in the Oscars short film categories, but a few stories about kids will usually land nominations. There’s something about childhood, that universal land of nostalgia, that just gets Oscar voters going. In “Like the Ones I Used to Know” (“Les Grandes Claques”), an equal parts tender and lighthearted narrative set in the 1980s, Quebecois filmmaker Annie St-Pierre has mastered the art of the poignant childhood tale. Like all great shorts, the film takes a simple premise — a recent divorcee picking his kids up from their mother’s house on Christmas — and elegantly uses specificity to tap into something achingly universal.
“That’s what interests me most in cinema: To zoom in on a micro moment that has a meta effect on the life of the characters. I think the format of short film is fantastic for that,” St-Pierre said in a recent interview. “You can really think about every little movement, every aspect of the cinematographic language…you can go really deep in a short fiction film.”
Based in Montreal, St-Pierre has worked with influential French Canadian auteurs like Denis Villeneuve, Philippe Falardeau, and Louise Archambault. Her previous work has been in documentary, including many behind-the-scenes films on feature sets. “Like the Ones I Used to Know” marks her first foray into narrative filmmaking. Clearly, she was paying close attention, because her facility with both story and craft stand out from the film’s opening seconds.
“I felt I would be able to see characters in more complexity with fiction in this short format, because it allows me to be really intense and not have to hide anything,” she said. “That’s also vertiginous, because it’s true you can’t hide yourself in fiction, everything comes from your head.”
The story, which St-Pierre calls autofiction, opens with siblings Julie (Lilou Roy-Lanouette) and Mathieu (Laurent Lemaire) goofing off in the bathroom during their family Christmas party. The nostalgic ’80s setting, which St-Pierre is careful not to overplay, comes through subtly in Julie’s oversized plastic frames and ugly Christmas sweaters worn without irony. From the warmth of the party, we see Denis (Steve Laplante) shivering in his Oldsmobile, where he is steeling himself not from the cold but from the seemingly minute task of picking up his kids.
As a child of divorce, St-Pierre thought it timely to revisit the awkwardness of those early custody arrangements that many ’80s kids, some now adults with kids of their own, had to navigate.
“It was still experimental, parents were trying to find some way to do shared custody with a lot of awkward decisions. They didn’t have any experience and there was no model,” the director said. “Now we’ve had time to reflect on what it can provoke in the kids and what they will have to go through, because they are not just little dolls, they have feelings, and it impacts their lives so much.”
A new mother herself, that appreciation of kids as autonomous beings helped St-Pierre work with the child actors, for whom she tried to create a safe and playful atmosphere. The result is a moving performance from the film’s young star, Lilou Roy-Lanouette, who seems to understand everything her father is feeling in those painful moments. With just a few knowing glances, she tugs at the heartstrings with surprisingly natural force.
“I don’t like in cinema the idea of kids. Often people are just representing an idea of what a kid is, and they ask two kids to play that and it’s not really sincere,” said St-Pierre. “All the scenes were really precisely written, but I didn’t write really precise dialogue for the kids, except when it was with the adults. When they were just kids, they were able to say whatever they wanted.”
St-Pierre wanted the set to be fun for the child actors, not a huge task since as it was set during a Christmas party. In addition to the playful ambience, she cast two non-professional actors in secondary roles, who had no prior experience on a film set.
“I wanted them to force the two others to go back to their inner kid, to never feel that they were doing a job,” she said. “Every time Lilou had this little reflex of wanting to just say some sentence and play act, there were the two other kids who were looking at them like, ‘What are they doing?’ So she was forced to go back to a real Lilou, or a real Julie. I’m offering them a place where they can feel really secure and themselves, and I avoid asking them too much. They have to be able to be kids if we want them to be kids in the film.”
“Like the Ones I Used to Know” is shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Live Action Short. Stream the film on Short of the Week.