Probing into the mind of a child through the medium of cinema is a challenge at the best of times, but when you remove almost all peripheral elements and make the child the trained focal point, it becomes a filmmaking task of surely self-destructive proportions. Olivier Ringer’s On the Sly, a quaint, breezy tale about the unfettered imaginative capacity of one neglected young girl, is a little too cutesy but ultimately worth it for the strong central performance and calming tone.
Firmly steeped in a healthy air of ambiguity, we don’t know much about Cathy (the director’s daughter, Wynona Ringer) or her family. There are hints at a depressed mother, and both parents seem distant, leaving Cathy confused and trying to understand the complexities of adult life. Pondering her place in their lives and resolving that they are ignoring her, she decides to challenge this by fleeing their charge and in effect teaching them a lesson.
On the Sly is no doubt a peculiar film, often unrelatable with its little oddities – such as the mother ringing a bell when it’s time for Cathy to come in for dinner – but one which successfully taps into that universal need not only to be loved, but to know that you are loved. Of course, this doubt will have plagued most all of us at one point or another during our childhood, and so we relate to it.
The salient point one takes away from it, though, is the sturdiness of a child’s imagination, wondrously inventive, yet also prone to misunderstandings, and indeed, making mountains out of molehills, as it were. Not only viewing her parents as unloving and uncaring, she even envisions them as saboteurs to her follies, such as when she plants some “magic seeds” and finds them disturbed shortly thereafter when her father passes by.
It is an incredibly twee him from head to toe, but one which works in spite of this and its low budget because of two strong performances, both the physical presence of Ringer, and the personable English voiceover added to our theatrical release. Together, alongside the sweeping score, they carry the admittedly brief runtime well, encapsulating the quiet sadness of her lonely excursion with a charming, believable level of innocence and curiosity.
Some slacker elements do abound in the second half, namely a few frenetic chase sequences rendered quite laughable by the low production quality. Also, the narration, but its sheer nature, lacks any and all air of subtlety, but so is the nature of a child’s mind. Cathy is not constricted by the inner-monologue that makes adults so secretive and duplicitous; this is her raw, unfiltered stream of consciousness.
Far from Earth-shattering or revelatory, On the Sly is just a sweet, simple film, lacking the over-the-top flourishes that might have plagued a Hollywood version of this story (if they would ever have attempted it in the first place). Sometimes feeling can get lost amid all that money, and so this low-fi, scarcely 70-minute production in many ways feels like the most astute and noble way of delivering something so personal. A nice diversion from multiplex fare if resolutely “special interest”, On the Sly is as unassuming as its title suggests, and performed with real conviction.
On the Sly is on limited release in UK cinemas now.