Child grooming is a tough subject to tackle, but Belgian director Emmanuelle Nicot takes a sensitive approach in her Critics Week feature Love According To Dalva. The key here is perspective: almost everything is shown from the point of view of a victim who has been taken into care, and who doesn’t realize she has been abused. Watching the truth slowly dawn upon her gives this film real tension, while also providing the possibility of recovery and enlightenment.
Dalva (Zelda Samson) is a 12-year-old girl who dresses like a grown woman, wears make up and does not expect to be treated like a child. She’s horrified when she’s taken from her father and into a temporary facility for teenagers with problems. She’s even more dismayed when she learns that her father has been arrested. Slowly, it transpires that Dalva believes that the “love” he has shown her is perfectly normal — she has been hidden from the world and immersed in a relationship that she thought was consensual.
Again, it’s tricky territory but Nicot shows great empathy for the child’s confusion. This is effectively a girl who has been brainwashed. So much hinges on the performance from Samson, and she delivers, veering between a bolshy mini-adult to a fragile young girl. While no abuse is visibly portrayed, there are some shocking scenes that reveal much more than dialogue could, from the way Dalva dresses to meet her father in prison, to the way she behaves with her youth worker, Jayden (Alexis Manenti).
Jayden is a terrific character: a burly no-nonsense type branded the “Terminator” by some of the kids, yet clearly a caring and capable person trying to do right by Dalva. Another touching relationship develops with Samia (Fanta Guirassy), Dalva’s roommate, whose mother is a prostitute. That Samia is initially hostile is a clear sign that the pair will eventually bond: this isn’t afraid of sentiment, but it stays on just the right side, recalling Short Term 12 as it follows the trials and tribulations of the facility.
As Dalva unpacks the expectations that have been put on her, this has something to say about gender and patriarchy as well as abuse. Her father’s own psychological complexity is revealed gradually, in all its horror. Dalva isn’t always an easy watch, but it’s a rewarding and thought-provoking one that marks Nicot as a promising talent.
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