In the small town of Longeverne in 1944, adults are dealing with the Vichy government and the impact of WWII. Meanwhile the town's boys, led by their eldest, the charismatic farmboy Lebrac (Jean Texier), have seen their skirmishes with L'Aztec (Thomas Goldberg) and the boys of neighboring Velran escalate. When one of the Velrans gets left behind and is captured, Lebrac announces that the Velrans will always leave his town holding their pants up as he declares the "War of the Buttons."
This is a strange pickup by The Weinstein Company, a film which will be booked into art houses and yet is aimed at children. In its homeland, it was also involved in a case of dueling adaptations, with another version of Louis Pergaud 1912 novel, filmed before in 1962 and 1994, being released within a week of this one, the first to reset its action into WWII Vichy. Director Christophe Barratier ("The Chorus," "Paris 36") has made an old fashioned film, but if one can get passed the heavy handed Philippe Rombi ("Swimming Pool," "Potiche") score, so obnoxious it almost made me bail on the screening, there are simplistic pleasures to be had.
The film opens with the Gibus brothers (Théophile Baquet and cutesie Clément Godefroy) running into L'Aztec and his boys in their territory. When they report back to Lebrac that they were called 'limp dicks,' it's war. The boys meet in fields and on fishing docks to do battle with sticks and the like. Meanwhile, they've all taken note of a new girl in town. Violette (Ilona Bachelier) is introduced as the goddaughter of Simone (Laetitia Casta, "Arbitrage"), the town's returning ladies wear shopkeeper, come to the country 'for the air,' but it's immediately clear, if not to the boys to the audience, that this is a Jewish girl being hidden. Simone's return is noted by the boys' teacher (Guillaume Canet, "Tell No One," "Last Night"), who we gradually learn had been involved with the sophisticated beauty. In one of the film's many parallels between adults and children, Lebrac tries to move in on Violette, but he's rebuffed as a dunce (Lebrac spends most classroom time in the corner). At home, Lebrac is bristling with rebellion against his father (Kad Merad, "The Well Digger's Daughter") where his sensible, loving mom (Marie Bunel, "Inspector Bellamy") tries to keep the peace. After a glimpse of the Nazis riding through the town, Longeverne's own version, former school failure Brochard (Grégory Gatignol, "The Chorus") arrives to exert his superiority over the schoolteacher by 'sweeping up the streets,' roughly ejecting a Jewish family from their home in full view of the school and a horrified Violette.
There's a feel of "Lord of the Flies" to "War of the Buttons" when the film is focused on the boys, but this film is far more nostalgic and gentle, warfare in underwear and cooking pots. The film's third act, where Lebrac learns the repercussions of acting without compassion, is akin to "The Battle of Algiers" for tweeners. Revelations come fast and furious and surprising alliances are acknowledged and made, but as expected in a film like this, everything ends in a golden glow with only the truly evil getting their comeuppance.
"War of the Buttons" is a small film which would probably be most enjoyed by the age group of its stars if they had the patience for subtitles. Young Texier holds the screen and could be a star in the making.
Robin did not see this film.
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