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Following a director and his crew who are making a movie with non-actor kids and teens from the working-class Picasso neighborhood in Boulogne-Sur-Mer in Northern France, filmmakers Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret’s drama The Worst Ones provides an empathetic look at growing up in challenging circumstances. Documentary-like in its candor, the coming-of-age film is also touchingly tender as it captures a memorable summer in its characters’ lives.

The Worst Ones — which won the top prize in the 2022 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard division — opens with the local kids auditioning for Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh). He’s drawn to tow-headed scamp Ryan (Timéo Mahaut), smart-ass Jessy (Loïc Pech), flirty teen Lily (Mallory Wanecque), and cautious Maylis (Mélina Vanderplancke) — who observes that Gabriel seems to be choosing all of “the worst ones” of the neighborhood kids for his movie. But as Gabriel’s project unfolds and we get to know the kids, we learn more about the painful realities that have shaped their lives and understand that they’re no worse — or better, for that matter — than any other flawed human.

Lily is still grieving for the brother she lost to devastating illness; she puts on a brave — even combative — front but is actually achingly vulnerable. So is Ryan, who’s been living with his older sister while his unreliable mother tries to turn her life around. Ryan works hard to keep his big emotions in check but can’t help occasional outbursts and flare-ups. Maylis isn’t sure she really wants to be in the movie at all, and Jessy’s bravado masks deep insecurity. As they work together to bring Gabriel’s vision to life, they learn new things about themselves and one another.

Akoka and Gueret, who also wrote the screenplay with Elénore Gurrey, tell their story honestly and without judgment. The characters are utterly convincing, and their journeys over the course of the summer that Gabriel films them are both intensely personal and universal in their relatability. By the time the credits roll, you’ll wish you could see how the movie within the movie turned out — and likely have shed a tear or two along the way — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Nell Minow: The Worst Ones has enough respect for the audience not to try to resolve the questions it raises: at the center, “Who really are the worst ones?” Is it the trouble-making kids from a dysfunctional or broken homes in a poor community or the adults who put them in a movie that tells their stories but also exploits them, setting the kids up for yet another abandonment, or maybe us, allowing this kind of neglect to continue? The film blurs the line between “real’ and the movie within the movie like a Russian doll giving it an immediacy that gets (intentionally) uncomfortable.

Loren King Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret’s film-within-a-film, besides being darkly humorous, offers a thought provoking take on the ethics of filmmakers that, craving artistic authenticity, cast underage non-professional actors. There are sharp allusions to “realist” films by Larry Clark, the Dardennes and, no doubt, many others that cinephiles will spot. It’s also shot in the characteristic handheld documentary style of pretentious films with occasional manufactured authenticity and performances by actors who play variations on themselves. The young cast of the faux film — Lily (Mallory Manecque), Ryan (Timéo Mahault), Jessy (Loïc Pech) and Maylis (Melina Vanderplancke) — are terrific, of course, as is pitch perfect Johan Heldenbergh as Gabriel, the director who sometimes crosses a line or two in a quest for realism. But “The Worst Ones” is more provocative than parody while also raising serious questions about exploitation and art.

Pam Grady: First-time feature directors make an arresting, if discomfiting, feature debut with a commentary on poverty porn… that is itself poverty porn. Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh), a Flemish filmmaker, has come to an impoverished French suburb to make his first feature, enlisting children and teens from the neighborhood to fill out his cast. The plot they are enacting is not so different than what they experience in their daily existence, a point driven home in scenes of the film’s three leads – slut-shamed Lily (Mallory Waneque), angry tween Ryan (Timéo Mahaut), and truculent Jessy (Loic Pech) – away from the cameras navigating life with family and contemporaries. Eventually, the production will end, the trio will be left pretty much where they started and their neighborhood will have been once again portrayed in a negative light. The acting is terrific, particularly from Waneque and Mahaut, and the drama never flags. But a drama that is clearly meant to be a critique of a certain kind of filmmaking falls into that style’s same traps.

Leslie Combemale Exploitation or art? That is at the center of Romane Gueret and Lise Akoka’s The Worst Ones. The filmmakers are part of the 21st century expansion of the banlieue drama, with more stories bring told by woman 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. Read full review.

Nikki Fowler: While watching the film, one doesn’t quite know where acting takes over and real life begins and ends. The film is a slippery tightrope, a satire on the ethics of hiring practices in the film industry when it comes to casting real people, especially children. Throughout the film, we meet juveniles who are in their real lives abused, bullied, and ostracized by their peers and suffer neglect from their own parents and families and who are then cast to recreate the highly triggering and emotional moments of their lives on a movie set that doesn’t always follow the proper guidelines and workplace protocols. Read full review.

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 fictional characters whose 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 Worst Ones may be one of the most discomforting and provocative movies of the year, but it may also be one of the best. Read full review.

Liz Whittemore The Worst Ones is a meta-narrative that succeeds in conveying hope through hardship. Not only does the film shine in its storytelling, embracing heartbreak and socioeconomic trauma, but the performances by our four young actors will hypnotize the viewer. Timéo Mahaut and Mallory Wanecque play the theatrical brother and sister duo, Lily and Ryan. Each pulling from the script an element of abandonment and aggression. The Worst Ones boasts a compelling film-within-a-film structure with an ending that leaves an impression on your soul,

Cate Marquis The Worst Ones is a French drama about a director casting and making a film about young people in a poor community in northern France and casting young non-actors in roles that resemble their own hard lives. On top of that, the directors of this actual drama, Lise Akoka and Romane Guerert, cast young non-actors in the roles in this film-within-a-film, adding another meta layer to the mix. The film comments on the common practice of filmmakers casting low-income young people who lives mirror the difficult lives in their dramas and whether that is always in the best interests of the young people cast, and even explores whether it might be exploitative or even abusive. During the casting calls at the film’s start, people in the community complain that the fictional director is only casting “the worst ones,” meaning kids with behavior problems but also meaning the ones who have had the worst experiences, and ignoring the good things in their working-class town. While Akoka and Guerest reflect on this fictional director, and other filmmakers, who perhaps take too little care with their young non-actors, these actual young non-actors get to shine. In charming performances, they reveal that there is far more to their lives and themselves as individuals than the stereotypes some of these realist films portray. It all adds up to a film that offers more depth than one expects, and even more hope.


Title: The Worst Ones

Directors: Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret

Release Date: March 24, 2023

Running Time: 99 minutes

Language: French with English subtitles

Screenwriters: Lise Akoka, Romane Gueret and Elénore Gurrey

Distribution Company: Kino Lorber

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore

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Edited by Jennifer Merin

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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).