THE WORST ONES – Review by Jennifer Merin
The Worst Ones (Le Pire) is a compelling coming of age drama written and directed by French filmmakers Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret. The narrative involves the making of a feature movie with non-actor kids who are cast as whose fictional characters’ personalities roughly resemble their own and whose rough circumstances are similar to the real lives of those who are cast. They are the toughest kids in their on-the-dole community of Boulogne-sur-Mer, one of the poorest cities in France, and they are recruited by a film production company to act in a movie that’s set in their hood. The movie-in-a-movie’s first-time director (Johan Heldebergh) conducts auditions, recruits his players and pushes their emotions into authentic performances as — themselves. Particularly charismatic are the two young leads, Timéo Mahaut and Mallory Wanescque. We should see more of them on screen if they choose to pursue professional acting careers.
The practice of hiring non-actors to play characters that live fictional lives similar to their real lives is a trend in contemporary French cinema and The Worst Ones, while fitting into that trend, also holds it up for critical inspection. In the production narrative, the usual movie set pressures are amplified by tensions that develop among the young cast — rivalries, crushes, family insults and the like — and by the way in which the fictional director, who is looking for specific performance qualities, manipulates the kids’ emotions. It is difficult at times to discern what is ‘real life’ and what is part of the ‘movie-in-a-movie.’ Is The Worst Ones illuminating the darkly exploitive underbelly of non-actor casting or does it fall into the darkness? Or is it psychodrama of sorts that lets its young cast act out their traumas in a relatively safe environment that has a transformative effect? All questions about the film’s intent and presentation are open to audience interpretation.
That said, expect to see real life emotions and traumas played out on screen in the presence of the film’s real and fictional crews who are clearly not qualified to meet the psychological needs of youngsters who are challenged to act out their troubling realities. Be prepared to see the ‘experimental’ production teetering on the brink of failure as cast members question what they are called upon to do and community members protest the way in which the film is impacting their already troubled neighborhood? These are story elements that grip viewers throughout the duration of the film, and will linger long after the denouement.
The Worst Ones is a fascinating, well-conceived and beautifully realized cinematic conceit, but even more engaging than the film’s unusual structure are the captivating kids and their individual real life and fictional character arcs. In its casting of non-professional kids and the fictional director’s emotional manipulation of them in the fictional narrative, the film is bound to give rise to legitimate concerns about exploitation of the kids. But the film’s denouement is absolute validation that art and creative expression are vitally important in people’s lives, particularly in their formative years.
The Worst Ones may be one of the most discomforting and provocative movies of the year, but it may also be one of the best. Go with the flow and keep tissues handy.