The unstanchable grief of a 4-year-old girl following the death of her mother is an unbearable sight. Yet Ponette, Jacques Doillon’s extraordinary drama about a child’s-eye view of heartbreak, makes sorrow absolutely mesmerizing.

Surviving the car crash that killed her mother and left her with a broken arm in a cast, Ponette (Victoire Thivisol) has the balm of a communicative father (Xavier Beauvois) who tries to help her even as he suffers his own loss. But distracted by work, he takes the little girl to live with cousins in the country. There, enrolled in school and framed by the everydayness of other children’s routines, she takes on the project of reuniting with her mother — she’s in heaven, Ponette knows, but maybe God would allow a return visit — with a fervor and seriousness of purpose that cracks our own hearts wide open with empathy. ”When a mother dies, it means her kid was mean,” one classmate tells her with the kind of brutality children display in real life but rarely on screen.

Thivisol, a nonprofessional 4-year-old, won the award for Best Actress at the 1996 Venice Film Festival. A preschooler doesn’t act so much as react — but the award has a certain amount of merit, since I don’t think I have ever seen a child project so authentically and with such complete access to her emotions. The real award, of course, goes to Doillon, a Parisian writer-director with a reputation for drawing subtle emotional work from his actors through improvisation. In Ponette, Doillon encourages his young ”stars” to talk about death, God, and loss, with a dignified respect for their opinions. He is rewarded with utter honesty and an emotionally gripping portrait of childhood. A

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