When we first meet Jamila (Khadija Jaafari) at the age of 11 in “Californie,” she is expecting to have a career in boxing, longingly looking over at the toned abs of an older female fighter in the gym she attends, eager for her growth spurt to happen and her time in the ring to commence. The attitude she’ll need as a boxer comes naturally, already sparring with her teachers at school over lessons that she doesn’t see the need for, and co-writers/directors Alessandro Cassigoli and Casey Kauffman give no suggestion that she’s wrong when all she sees is her mother toiling away as a housecleaner to keep a roof over her head and her sister Angelica. Learning French or about algae spread in biology is going to lead anywhere, she thinks and as it stands, prevents her from where she needs to be immediately to see success, which is the gym.
Cassigoli and Kauffman don’t end up spending much time there, having already made the documentary “Butterfly” in 2018 about Irma Testa (as it happens the woman Jamila can be seen admiring), who worked her way towards becoming Italy’s first female boxer to compete in the Olympics, but consider the road less traveled in their latest film, both an acknowledgment of the reality for most who don’t make it to the top and the way dreams are often reshaped for immigrants by what’s practical. While the doc background comes in handy, with “Californie” filmed in a verite style that gives it an inherent naturalism, Cassigoli and Kauffman make a deeply satisfying drama in the tradition of Italian neorealism centered around a family of Moroccan immigrants trying to find their footing off the coast of Naples.
Told across four formative years in Jamila’s life, the brisk character study fits a lot of nuance into its slim 83 minute run time, showing its lead’s interest in boxing wane considerably when she has to put up a fight elsewhere, continually frustrated about the things her family can’t afford. Her father, unseen in the film, has remained in Morocco, and once Jamila’s 12, she is thrust into the workforce, first running groceries to neighbors and eventually collecting money under the table as an assistant to a hair stylist, whose own business is run inside her apartment. Feisty and self-motivated, she doesn’t bristle at the burden of being a breadwinner, but to do so at such an early age is tricky to navigate when her mother is at work all the time herself, her sister is preoccupied with her boyfriend and the adults that are in her life, such as Jasmine, her boss, are taking advantage of her naïveté when it comes to negotiating pay, even if she only sees the opportunity to make money she couldn’t otherwise.
Maybe Jamila’s left boxing behind, but the spirit of it has never left her as she rolls with the punches, and the fact that none ever seem to unsettle her is a testament to the captivating poise of Jaafari and the gentle character building of Cassigoli and Kauffman, who are careful to give glimpses of who she is in small, seemingly benign moments that come into play when she’s facing adversity. The film skips along at a lively pace, but every scene is allowed to linger in the mind as Jamila is starting to understand how the world works and how best she can find her way through it. She may have to put aside the notion of ever receiving the cheers of thousands on a public stage as she might’ve if she put on the gloves, but “Californie” finds glory elsewhere that it may feel like only she can know, yet will appear as a triumph to just about anyone.
“Californie” will screen as part of the Venice Film Festival at the Giornate Degli Autori on September 3rd on 5:15 pm at the Sala Perla and September 5th at 9 pm at the Cinema Rossini.