The Life Ahead is a coming-of-age drama set in Naples, Italy about a 12-year-old orphaned boy (Ibrahima Gueye) who is sent to live with an elderly cantankerous woman whom he recently robbed. This reluctant pairing is a clash of opposites with young and old, Muslim and Jew, refugee and native, as the young boy starts selling drugs on the street and his aged caretaker struggles with memories of the Holocaust.
The Life Ahead is tender and genuine without being forcefully sweet or sanitized. When told with patience and honesty, films about harsh childhood manage to create a world that is both tenacious and fragile, both defiant and unsure. Other films that achieve this include The 400 Blows (1959), Kes (1969), The Kid with a Bike (2011), and The Florida Project (2017).
This film is based on the 1975 book The Life Before Us by French novelist Romain Gary and stars Italian screen legend Sophia Loren (Grumpier Old Men, 1995) whose sensitive and tragic performance is a beautiful surprise. It also helps that The Life Ahead is directed by Sophia Loren's son Edoardo Ponti (Coming and Going, 2012) which no doubt helped Loren bring life to a role with emotional clarity and a world-weary longing.
Some parts of the young boy's character development felt too abrupt which failed to mesh with the more gradual and natural mood of the film. And although The Life Ahead is not a hugely dramatic or perfectly paced treasure, it's human, and it offers a kind of warmth many viewers can benefit from right now.