Hot Docs Review: 'Alphée of the Stars'

Alphée of the Stars (Alphée des étoiles)
(Canada, 82 min.)
Written and directed by Hugo Latulippe
Programme: Canadian Spectrum
Photo: Esperasmos Films.
Alphée of the Stars (aka Alphée des étoiles in its original French) is a touching and affectionately intimate tale. Candid and poignant, insightful and sweet, it’s easy to see why this endearing doc was a box office smash in Québec and went on to score nominations for Best Documentary at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards and Jutra Awards alike. Father/filmmaker Hugo Latulippe observes his five-year-old daughter Alphée with hopes that she can grow up and leave a normal, happy life in spite of the developmental challenges she faces due to a rare genetic disorder. Alphée was born with Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome, which impedes her neurological and muscular development. The tests on whether Alphée’s condition warrants special education programs at school are inconclusive, so her parents must look at their daughter objectively and determine her outlook on life.

Latulippe frames this outlook from Alphée’s perspective. Crouching down and framing the documentary from the height at which Alphée sees the world, Latulippe provides an astonishingly intimate, yet neutral, viewpoint of whether Alphée’s condition sets her apart from the other kids her age. Alphée staggers a little as she walks and she speaks more slowly than most five-year-olds do, but her bumbly gait and infectious enthusiasm seem completely consistent with the behaviour of most children. The future looks bright, as seen through the viewpoint of an innocent child.

Alphée of the Stars sees the family travel to Switzerland, where retreat to the childhood getaway of Alphée’s mother and evaluate whether Alphée can indeed function in a classroom full of average children. Latulippe and his wife, Laure, give Alphée a regime that would be typical for a beginning student. They practice her counting, they rehearse her elocution, and they play question and answer games. Although Alphée frequently pauses on her answers or struggles to enunciate clearly the thoughts running through her mind, Alphée of the Stars shows that its young subject acts quite normally for a girl of her age. She’s giddy, spirited, intuitive, and energetic, as kids should be in their pre-school years.

Latulippe does a commendable job of detaching his role as Alphée’s father with his role as her documentarian. There’s an especially striking scene towards the middle of the film that sees Latulippe follow his daughter as she goes on an outdoor retreat with a group of kids her age. Trailing Alphée by only a few feet, the camera watches as a boy in the group approaches Alphée twice to pull her wool cap over her face and taunt her that she cannot see. Viewers might initially feel uncomfortable as they watch Alphée be bullied just feet away from her father without seeing an arm reach from outside the frame to pull the boy away. It’s important that Latulippe doesn’t intervene, though, as the scene shows Alphée deal with the situation with far more patience and grace than most children would. The director also made a sharp observation during the post-screening Q&A that not once does Alphée look in the camera’s direction for aid. She knows how to take care of herself.

Additionally, Alphée’s teacher poses a question to the class regarding a missing item and Alphée is the only child to respond even though the boy is in the midst of taunting her. Alphée is therefore a perceptive child and one who is aware of her environment. The scene also ends with a fellow classmate coming to Alphée’s aid and helping her with her backpack, which shows that Alphée is equally susceptible to kindness and compassion. The schoolyard dynamics are much the same for her as they are for other kids.

Shot with a charm and whimsical feel against the dazzling backdrop of the Swiss forests and mountains, Alphée of the Stars gives audiences a candid insight into the development of this young child. As Latulippe observes his daughter and occasionally comments on her condition in voiceover, the film draws attention to the pros and cons of our public education systems and asks the audience which options are the wisest for Alphée’s future. The film’s playful, humanist approach to Alphée’s childhood shows the audience that they need not think of “disability” as synonymous with “disadvantaged”. By injecting the film with Alphée’s fantastical joie de vivre, Alphée of the Stars affords its young heroine a sunny outlook.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★) 

Saturday, May – 3:30pm at the ROM

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information on films, tickets, and show times.

Update: Alphee of the Stars is now available on home video (incl. iTunes).