Stream or skip? +2023

French filmmaker Maimouna Doucoure continues her debut Sweet – which was controversial without good reason – with Hawa (now on Amazon Prime Video), another eye-opening look at the psychology of modern youth. Hawa marks the debut of Sania Halifa, who plays a 15-year-old Parisian who, anticipating the death of her terminally ill grandmother, does everything she can to meet Michelle Obama in hopes that she will become her adoptive mother. Before you raise a skeptical eyebrow at such a seemingly silly premise, let it be known that Doucoure strikes a convincing tone between pragmatic and fantastic for this modern-day parable.


The essentials: Hawa doesn’t seem to care if people like her. She is what she is and she wants what she wants and that’s it. If you stand in her way, she will push you. If you have something she needs, she will take it. If you steal from her, she will blast you in the face with bug spray. She stands out: she has an albino complexion, she wears thick Coke glasses, her afro is full and blond. Take her or leave her, and you do well to take her. You want someone of their determination by your side.

Hawa is the daughter of Cameroonian immigrants. She was over-reared by her grandmother Maminata (Oumou Sangare), who works as a griot and sings stories in the style of the oral traditions of her homeland. Where are Hawa’s parents? We don’t know, but it can’t be good, can it? Hawa has certainly been strong for a long time. And she must continue to be strong – Maminata is dying of an unspecified illness and she is desperate for someone to take her granddaughter in. Her granddaughter, who has been adamant about rejecting potential adopters, faces the possibility that social services will place her in a nursing home.

Her granddaughter Hawa, who one could say has a wild hair up her butt one day when she decides the only suitable adoptive mother for her is Michelle Obama. Her two daughters are alone now, she lives in a house with 12 bedrooms, there’s definitely space for her, Hawa reasons – rather pragmatic, you have to admit. Michelle Obama happens to be on a book tour in Paris, and when Hawa isn’t making a few bucks at the corner grocery store or calling paramedics when she finds Maminata unconscious on the floor, she’s doing her best to meet the famous woman. Hawa has a friend, the adorable mumbling misfit Erwan (Titouan Gerbier), who gives her a little help here and there in her quest that will bring her into the sphere of pop singer Yseult (plays himself) and astronaut Thomas Pesquet (plays himself). Gives you a little more than you might expect. But this is Hawaii. She’s beautiful, funny, steadfast, intense and oh so disarming.

Hawa Movie Streaming
Photo: Prime Video

Which movies will it remind you of?: Benh Zeitlin’s magically realistic films Beasts of the Southern Wilds and wendy come to mind, or Mati Diops Atlanticbut much more subtle in fairy tales and crossed with Sweet‘ urban Parisian pragmatism.

Notable performance: Just like she did with me SweetDoucoure shows a deft guiding hand for young actors – like Halifa – that helps define Hawa far beyond any possible genre boundaries by playing a character who is never cloying, manipulative or precocious and is always and always herself and only herself.

Memorable dialogue: Erwan stupidly asks Hawa why, as if expecting a satisfactory answer:

Hawa: Michelle Obama – I want her to adopt me.

Erwan: But why?

Hawa: Just like that.

gender and skin: none.

Our opinion: The grumpy bastard in me finds the conspiracy Hawa be an irritating invention. But the whimsical idealist in me finds it adorable. Don’t be the grumpy bastard – Hawa is an entertaining exercise in deep pathos, understated comedy and rich character, with occasional bursts of inspired precise filmmaking. It’s tempting to define the film in terms of magical realism, but it only skirts the fringes of classification. It’s worth noting how the script — by Doucoure, Zangro and Alain-Michel Blanc — slips out of time ever so slightly, with no mention of social media, politics, or any defining characteristics of the day. Instead, Hawa has an array of assets straight out of classic storybooks: A sad backstory, a good sidekick, a wise old man, a dependable scooter, an unwavering focus, and an innate ability to connect with artists and scientists who also happen to be dreamers.

On the surface, the film has the premise of a Disney Channel film that would likely feature a young lead man bending over backwards to be loveable and playing an “average kid” having an improbable dream through improbable channels to one unlikely ending – and hey, if you dream big, maybe it will come true. In a word, yuck. Hawa has no use for such stalemate or easy answers. Somehow, Hawa finds her way behind the scenes at an arena concert, to Michelle Obama’s lounge at a children’s hospital, even through the airport’s baggage terminal to the tarmac, where an internationally famous woman’s private plane stands with tight security details — sequences elegantly constructed, with palpable tension and clever camera work.

Admittedly, these sequences too brazenly defy logic. But the subtle visual gestures within the filmmaking suggest a larger idea that destiny is at work here and that Hawa’s destiny isn’t as simple and obvious as landing a rich, famous person as an adoptive parent. The larger meaning of these moments comes into focus during the film’s powerful finale, which finds a way for reality to collapse so gently it’s hard not to be moved and inspired. Hawa is undoubtedly an extraordinary person, but does that mean she’s entitled to an extraordinary experience? Well, that depends on how you define “extraordinary experience,” something the film enticingly leaves us to ponder.

Our appeal: Stream it. Hawa is a delightfully delightfully understated neo-fable with strong performances and even stronger direction.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more about his work below

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