‘Homecoming’ Review: Catherine Corsini’s Engrossing Study of a Family Evading a Past That Eventually Divides Them

The story template of “Homecoming” is a standard one: Years after an unexplained trauma, a family returns to the place they once called home, where hidden truths come to light and bitter conflicts arise over the course of one seemingly idyllic summer. Yet for all the secrets and lies that shape the narrative of Catherine Corsini’s straightforwardly told but consistently intriguing new film, its most interesting tensions often emerge from things its characters already know, even if they haven’t acknowledged them out loud. For Black single parent Khédidja (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna), arriving at the Corsican birthplace of her children after 15 years away, disinterring a buried past throws her maternal insecurities into sharp relief; for her teenage daughters Jessica (Suzy Bemba) and Farah (Esther Gohourou), what revelations the trip yields only underline their respective senses of not-belonging in their own small family.

This is complex, delicate material, simmering with subtext that occasionally boils over into vocal anguish regarding the prejudice and condescension faced on a daily basis by Black women in French society — and it’s handled, on screen at least, with tact and compassion by Corsini, a director at her best when her social interests coincide with a knack for robust, old-fashioned melodrama. It would be remiss not to mention, however, that “Homecoming” has been dogged by allegations of inappropriate behavior on set, and inadequate care of its excellent underage actors, in particular while shooting an intimate scene that has since been cut from the final film. (No formal complaints have been filed.) Attendant controversy may curb the international distribution prospects of this otherwise accessible, affecting Cannes competition entry.

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The film begins in a state of palpably sweaty-palmed panic, as a hyperventilating Khédidja sits in the back of a speeding taxi on a winding coastal road in Corsica, flanked by three-year-old Jessica and infant Farah. We don’t know where she’s heading so urgently, and can’t hear the phone call that sends her into an even nervier emotional state — before we jump ahead 15 years, as she and her teenage girls more calmly board a ferry back to the Mediterranean island. Now based in the Paris banlieues, hard-up Khédidja has taken a summer job as a nanny for a wealthy, white vacationing family; while their mother works, studious Jessica and rebellious Farah intend to hit the beaches and explore the shared birthplace they can’t remember.

This is their first visit since the death of their white Corsican father all those years ago: Jessica is curious to fill in absent childhood memories, while Farah is more snidely indifferent to the whole endeavor. That difference is the fault line on which family relations later more drastically crack. Constantly chided by her mother and older sister for her unruly behavior and nihilistic outlook, Farah feels increasingly alienated from them; what she doesn’t know is that straight-A student Jessica, who has ambitious career plans, privately wonders if she must leave her underprivileged family behind to succeed. A taste of another life is offered her by Gaia (Lomane de Dietrich), the louche eldest daughter of Khédidja’s employer (Denis Podalydès, wittily sending up the notionally liberal but disconnected elite); an immediate bond swiftly evolves into a romance that takes the demure, sexually inexperienced Jessica off guard.

Khédidja, meanwhile, reunites with her late husband’s best friend Marc-Andria (Cédric Appietto), while avoiding the in-laws from whom she’s rather ruthlessly estranged herself and her children; Farah, with her elders distracted, slides into hash-dealing and a brittle love-hate courtship with a jockish local lifeguard. If Corsini and Naïla Guiguet’s script takes some contrived measures to abrasively braid these three diverging paths back together — this a film where a password-free laptop opens immediately onto an intimately confessional diary — the thematic end justifies the means. Gradually, the girls realize that their ongoing struggle with their mixed-race identity and half-erased lineage isn’t as far removed from their mother’s youthful experience as they once assumed.

A terrific trio of performances go some way toward making the film’s more neatly schematic plotting feel organically, messily human. (Ditto DP Jeanne Lapoirie’s unfussy compositions and crisp high-summer lighting.) Sagna, a nursing assistant who took her first acting role in Corsini’s 2021 hospital drama “The Divide” — and won a César for her pains — proves that was no flukish casting coup. Quietly watchful and tightly wound as a mother losing control not just of her children but their awareness of the world around them, she lends the film an anchoring but unsentimental warmth, while largely ceding the spotlight to Bemba and Gohourou: the former stoic but tremulously vulnerable as a good girl finally staking out her own individual wants, the latter (previously seen in Maïmouna Doucouré’s “Cuties”) a riveting lit fuse of turbulent anger and confusion, too easily dismissed by her family as stupidity.

Such judgments land especially harshly in a world where too many strangers assume the worst of them. Corsini’s film often bluntly identifies and addresses the racism these women have weathered so habitually that it threatens to twist and snarl into self-loathing, but it also deftly signals the micro-aggressions they can’t directly combat: a gushing compliment from a white benefactor that tilts into patronizing insult, or a stranger’s neck-craning stare from a balcony. Invisible, unspoken lines of acceptance and rejection are drawn throughout “Homecoming,” sometimes within the family unit: There’s no place like home, if you can only figure out where that is.

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