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Secrets Stashed

Memory-box-movie-review-manal-issa
Haut et Court - Abbout Productions - Micro_Scope

MOVIE REVIEW
Memory Box (2021)

The layered memories of this film work surprisingly well, both as a historical document and as an uncovering of buried truths. The set-up is simple: Alex (Paloma Vauthier) is 14. She lives in Montreal with her mother, Maia (Rim Turki), after her father has left them to start a new family in France. Alex and her grandmother Téta (Clémence Sabbagh) are getting ready for Christmas when a large box is delivered; the grandmother pales and insists it should be hidden away. Alex, obviously, snoops. The box has been sent from the family of Maia’s teenage best friend Julie, who has recently died without Maia’s knowledge. It contains the extensive journals, photographs and cassettes that teenage Maia (Manal Issa) obsessively made for Julie, so they could keep in touch after Julie’s family left Beirut in the mid-’80s. Alex knows nothing of any of this – not of the war in Lebanon, not of her family history, and not of what her mother was like when she was young. So she snoops some more.

Anyone who has ever had a codependent best friend (so, any current or former teenage girl) will understand how brutally painful it can be to dredge up memories of a vanished friendship even in the best of circumstances. It’s clear Maia was very much a normal kid – rating the movies she saw, dancing to Blondie with her friends in riverside nightclubs, and falling head-over-heels in love with a boy named Raja (Hassan Akil). But when those memories are of being stuck in a city at war, the stress is obviously off the charts. There’s an amazing shot of Raja and Maia on his motorbike, racing down a city promenade as bullets whiz through the air around them and the night sky behind them lights up with explosions. It’s clear their love has made them bulletproof, or so they think. Everyone has a lot of growing up to do.

Directors Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas (who cowrote the script with Gaëlle Macé) have explicitly based the film on journals Ms. Hadjithomas kept in the ’80s; but while the film might be autofiction, its feet are firmly in the present moment (although before last year’s horrible explosion in Beirut). Alex and her friends in the group chat send each other video messages constantly; and when Alex goes quiet for a few days her mates rally around her, online and off, in charming ways. Although a smarter movie would have made space for Téta’s experiences, her grief and her very different coping mechanisms, especially in the graveyard scene, this is Maia’s war. The various different ways in which the images and scrapbooks are brought to life by Laurent Brett’s visual effects both ground the story in its time but simultaneously bring the drama and pleasures of being a teenager into palpable reality. Tina Baz’s editing makes it very clear where and when all the various escapades are taking place; and Ms. Issa does a fine job embodying the mix of hopefulness, enthusiasm, and contempt most 17-year-olds have, war or not. Ms. Turki has the less showy part, especially compared to Ms. Vauthier’s well-meaning (and pleasingly, not too selfish) interference; but at the end, she’s the one who’s seen laughing for the first time in a very long while. It’s unusual for a movie about such serious topics to earn itself a hopeful ending, but “Memory Box” is an unusual film.

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