THE WORST ONES – Review by Leslie Combemale

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Exploitation or art? That is at the center of Romane Gueret and Lise Akoka’s The Worst Ones, translated from the French title, Les Pires. The film examines the ethics of the banlieue drama genre, which has spawned a number of award-winning films like Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables, Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s Gagarine, and most famously Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, while at the same time leveraging the genre’s framework to tell its story. Gueret and Akoka hired non-actors for the lead roles, and used Boulogne-sur-Mer, one of the poorest cities in France, as its location.

Created as a film within a film, The Worst Ones focuses on 50-something first time director Gabriel (Johan Heldebergh), who has hired non-actors for his film about disaffected youth and their struggles. He is clearly attempting to exorcise the demons and live out the best memories his own childhood. The first scenes show his interviews with neighborhood kids. One comments, after being told the director’s preference is for kids dealing with hardship, that “the worst ones” seem to be getting cast. The action of the film then goes back and forth between Gabriel’s filming and the experiences of the performers off-set, making it difficult to distinguish what is fiction and what is real. He cajoles better performances from his actors through manipulation, and sometimes even by putting the actors playing two central characters in dangerous or emotionally unsafe situations.

Where are the lines drawn between art and exploitation? Really, who are the worst, the troubled kids or the filmmaker using them? That’s the question The Worst Ones asks from a number of perspectives. As part of the plot, Gabriel pushes Ryan (Timéo Mahaut) to show rage on the playground, something Ryan has been grappling with as it relates to his mother and abandonment issues. The director also forces Lily (Mallory Wanescque) into physical interactions with her co-star in bed (sans intimacy coordinator), when in her own life she has had the narrative of her sexuality molded by rumors and the judgment of the girls around her. In the film, it appears Ryan finds a way, through his character, to make peace with his feelings of loss, and Lily finds agency and a way to express herself within the construct of her performances. All this is despite Gabriel and his blundering, self-serving production.

Gueret and Akoka are part of the 21st century expansion of the banlieue drama, with more stories being told by female filmmakers. Many of the genre’s earlier examples were male-centered, both behind the lens and in subject matter. Gueret and Akoka have a background in casting, and met while auditioning over 4000 non-professional actors for a feature film. The web series they created together in 2021, Would You Rather, centered on banlieue-dwelling teenage girls coming of age while trying to fit in and live large, all with limited means. The Worst Ones is the director duo’s first feature film, after the release of their award-winning short Chasse Royale in 2016. The Worst Ones is the result of several years of casting and workshopping with non-professional actors in working class cities by these directors. Lise Akoka’s experience studying psychology and training teen actors in performance put her in a unique place to consider the effects and ramifications of using their experiences to bring reality and truth to their performances. The Worst Ones calls into question what is safe and ethical about filmmaking that mines or exploits non-actors and their experiences in the name of art. They have made a film that makes you think about that, while also showing their cast to their best advantage.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.