There’s a whole genre of film called Kids Smoking Cigarettes. Usually European, often seen in the Berlinale Generation section, often a first or second-time feature, usually taking place over that Last Summer of youth. The kids are always a bit too young to be smoking cigarettes, or fending for themselves, or dabbling in crime, or drinking alcohol, but they have no choice: they are stuck in the social realist film genre. And after perhaps the UK, Belgium are the kings of social realism: enter It’s Raining in the House (Paloma Sermon-Daï, 2023).
It certainly hues to formula. But thankfully, there is a tender lyricism and a lived-in detail, that imbues Sermon-Daï’s fiction debut (she made one doc before) with a certain charm that elevates it above the norm.
Taking place over a scorching summer, draping almost every daytime scene in a searing orange hue, even in places where sunlight wouldn’t normally be found, It’s Raining in the House is a story of two siblings who certainly enjoy smoking endless cigarettes. (They don’t just buy them out of the pack, but create their own with a big bag of tobacco, shells and a little machine.) They have little else to do.
We first meet them, Purdey (Purdey Lombet) and Makenzy (Makenzy Lombet), as they walk down a long country lane, the sun beaming in their eyes, carrying the shopping. (It’s a smart way to stress that they can’t afford a car.), She’s 18, thinking about university, and he’s 15, having just failed his end-of-year exams. They live in a house contaminated with mould. Purdey has to sleep in the same room as Makenzy due to a leak in the roof. Their single mother, a big tolerator of smoking cigarettes, is rarely there; too busy going off on alcohol binges to provide them with a figure of authority.
With scenes of chilling by a lake (smoking), petty crime, talking about girls, playing PlayStation and generally getting into trouble, Makenzy has a great knack for capturing the nervous energy of youth, translating his anxiety into quick dopamine rushes instead of actually building something with his life. Purdey brings a more thoughtful demeanour, not as quick to rush, but actually reflecting on the actual options laid out before her. She is alone, and woefully unequipped, to find an alternative living situation.
While many films in this genre are content to use shallow focus, uninspired handheld photography and improvised dialogue to suggest the turmoil of youth, DOP Frédéric Noirhomme — who lensed the excellent Hedi (Mohamed Ben Attia, 2016) — finds striking compositions that clearly speak to their internal yearning. One shot in particular, repeated more than once, features the kids in the lake, the bottom half of the screen shooting their heads bobbing above the water, while the top half is filled with yachts and wind-surfers; clearly expressing the harsh economic divide in modern-day Belgium. And moments of Makenzy’s minor larcenies have a great sense of space, giving his naughtiness depth and a little bit of tension. While it’s certainly nothing you haven’t seen before, It’s Raining in the House doesn’t just document the travails of youth, it brings them tangibly alive, one cigarette at a time.