A teenage orphan lives a double life in this involving French drama which deserves to be widely seen
Dirs: Chad Chenouga, Christine Paillard. France. 2016. 98mins
A resourceful teenager who never knew his father and who loses his mother before the opening credits conceals from his classmates that he’s been placed in a government-run facility for minors. The resulting film is a small gem of believable characters from diverse backgrounds interacting, struggling, screwing up and growing up
The incident-packed narrative deftly defying expectations at several turns
The largely autobiographical tale by co-writer-director Chad Chenouga, who works in the theater but hasn’t directed a fiction feature since his 2001 debut 17 rue Bleue, is movingly anchored by a talented newcomer with heartthrob good looks, Khaled Alouach as central protagonist Nassim. Released in France on May 3, this involving and affecting film deserves to be widely seen.
Though the template may sound semi-familiar, the telling of this story is satisfyingly cinematic and fresh, the incident-packed narrative deftly defying expectations at several turns. Much as the stop-motion charmer My Life as a Courgette made an orphan’s travails feel like a worthy 21st century successor to the emotional arc of Oliver Twist, this is another French-language movie with zip and verve in the service of possibly overwhelming — and utterly justified — melancholy.
Nassim commutes 40 minutes each way to the Paris high school he attended before being orphaned where, instead of admitting that he lives in a modest facility for mostly wayward minors, he maintains the charade that he’s living with an uncle in a classy suburb. His sexual initiation is courtesy of Mina ( Myriam Mansouri), an assertive lower class trouble maker, but Nassim is simultaneously courting a classmate from a well-to-do intellectual family. Nobody suspects that he’s actually living near the bottom of the social totem pole but the pressure of never tripping up weighs on him, as does barely tamped down grief over his late mother.
Tortured by what really prompted his mother’s death, unsure of his next move but certain he has little in common with most of his fellow boarders, Nassim’s juggling act between two worlds that must never intersect and a blurry multitude of possible futures is consistently compelling
Elsewhere, Jisca Kalvanda is excellent in a radically different role as Zawady, a humorless ward of the state studying around the clock to qualify for her second year of medical school before her government-paid lodging and support expire on her next birthday. There’s undeniable power in the scenes where Nassim drills this desperate, dark-skinned outsider on the inner workings of the human body that a physician needs to know.
Veteran actress Yolande Moreau is the embodiment of tough love as the head of the shelter. Her character could coast since she’s close to retirement, but instead doggedly applies skills honed over the years to try and nurture the spark she sees in Nassim. That spark could easily get smothered in the logistics of his intense double life.
Supporting roles are splendidly cast, and the narrative’s abrupt but never confusing transitions are handled with often thrillingly assured style.
Production company: TS Productions
International sales: Films Distribution
Producers: Miléna Poylo, Gilles Sacuto
Screenplay: Christine Paillard, Chad Chenouga
Cinematography: Thomas Bataille
Editor: Pauline Casalis
Production design: Brigitte Brassart
Main cast: Yolande Moreau, Khaled Alouach, Jisca Kalvanda, Camille Japy, Eric Savin, Marc Fayet, Théo Fernandez, Myriam Mansouri, Alexia Quesnel