THE WORST ONES – Review by Jennifer Merin

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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.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).