Jacques Doillon’s harrowing film Ponette may very well be the best, most grueling, and in the end most truthful and transcendent film ever made about the mechanics of grief. Don’t watch it on a lark, particularly if you’re a parent; after viewing it, you’ll feel as if you’ve been scoured with steel wool inside and out. The situation is purposefully simple: as we open, a pint-sized four-year-old named Ponette (Victoire Thivisol, a best-actress winner at the Venice International Film Festival) is in the hospital with a broken arm after a car wreck that killed her mother. As she is jockeyed around, during the transitional post-funeral period, from her aunt’s house to a live-in preschool to finally her father’s home, Ponette undergoes her own tribulation: she refuses to accept her mother’s death and move on. Nobody around her has much time or patience for the child’s inconsolable grief, and so she must go the road alone, attempting to collate what little she understands about God and Heaven into a reasonable scheme by which she can once again see or at least speak to her mother. What Ponette does best is quietly but indelibly express the plight of children as they attempt, with such inadequate tools, to survive under the merciless wheels of the adult world. All the more amazing, then, that Doillon finds deliverance for Ponette, in what may be either a simple dream experience or an unsentimental blast of secular magical realism. This isn’t merely a movie—it’s a mesmerizing ordeal by cinema.