Ponette stays at a remote country farm with her aunt and cousins while Dad is a two-hour commute away. A few nights after the funeral, Ponette has a dream where her mother talks and plays with her. When she awakes, her odyssey begins as she tries to make her mother return.
While the film's story is told entirely from a child's perspective, it would be misleading to say Ponette is just a film about children. This isn't simply a movie to help teach our children about death or cruelty. Rather the children in the movie, because they are not sentimentalized but shown in their own element, effectively cut through our adult sophistications to the essential nature of our desires and losses. As Ponette and her cousins try to make sense of the ambiguity of losing a mother, we are confronted with our own efforts to make meaning out of our contradictory experiences. "All will be well," the mystics say. But it sure doesn't seem like it to us.
Ponette's desire for her mother's voice echoes our deepest desires. I recognize something of myself in Ponette's plaintive cry in the chapel. I've wanted to be a different person. I've desired a friendship that was doomed. And I fear death cutting me off from those I love. Like her, at times I would have done anything to realize my desire. When it comes right down to it, many of our deepest desires are longings for the impossible, or the banishing of the inevitable. As with Ponette these desires are met by an impossible silence.
There is something final about death; we can't imagine what it'll be like, and when we're faced with it, we can't imagine life continuing. It is the perfect place to see ourselves as we really are: helpless. As adults, our busy lives, our families, projects or beliefs help us deny this basic truth. With the click of a button we can tune in to the TV, turn on the car, play our favourite songs. But we can't make someone love us, or pull back the hand of death. Ponette fails to get her mother to speak with her. All our gadgets are just like Ponette's doll that she throws in anger and then comforts: props to make us feel powerful in the face of helplessness.
In fact no one can really help us deal with loss. They can provide comfort and accompaniment, but ultimately we must go through our trials and meet alone whatever answers await us. Ponette's aunt tries to cheer her with the story of Jesus' resurrection, but this only raises Ponette's hopes for her own success. Her cousins teach her magic words, and tell her to gather gifts. Ponette offers up her pinecones and eagle feathers, and calls the words to no effect. Her friend at school initiates her in trials so she can make requests of God. But her plaintive cries in the chapel go unanswered. And her father's brusque rationalism, while perhaps intended to bring her back to reality, only isolates her further. Ponette can't go on longing for her mother, and yet she can't forget. She is in limbo. She is truly on her own.
But in this aloneness a still small voice speaks. When Ponette weeps alone at her mother's grave, having exhausted all her options, she is unexpectedly met. In the quiet countryside, alone with her sorrow, something breaks through to her soul. Like Job she is met by a mystery of nature. When God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, Job's complaints aren't addressed, but he is confronted with the awesome Mystery of God. (Where were you when I created the universe?) In the process he bows in worship; he learns how to live with Mystery. Like Job, Ponette is mysteriously addressed and answered. It's no accident that Ponette is alone in the countryside when this happens. Nature's transformative processes are constantly echoing the renewing Mystery of God, for those who have the emptiness to hear. And Ponette is nothing if not empty at this point. She accepts her answer because she has tried everything else. As long as we cling to desires that are impossible, we too deny life. When we have truly given up our own efforts to satisfy our soul, we are met by Mystery.
Not that Ponette's life will be any less painful. Suffering leaves its marks on us. But her encounter allows her to leave limbo at last and enter back into life. She has found a way to live with her loss and make meaning of her pain, because she has been met. God's impossible silence is revealed as a gift because it shows us the emptiness of what we desire. But we can only see this after we've tried everything else. It is only suffering through experiences that allows us to accept the impossible. And mysteriously we find life awaits us.