The Worst Ones

As audition interviews are held in a school supply room in the suburbs of northern France’s Boulogne-Sur-Mer, we’ll meet 17 year-old Jessy (Loïc Pech), just out of a 3 month prison stint; 16 year-old Lily (Mallory Wanecque), who has garnered an unwarranted reputation as a slut; Ryan (Timéo Mahaut), a young boy with a beat-up face currently in the custody of his sister and his contemporary, Maylis (Mélina Vanderplancke), who asks the casting directors if they are intentionally trying to pick “The Worst Ones.”

Laura's Review: B+

Cowriters (with Elénore Gurrey)/directors Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret, former casting directors who worked with children, won the 2022 Cannes Un Certain Regard prize for their clever film-within-a-film which raises numerous ethical questions about exactly what they are doing here.  Casting “The Broken Circle Breakdown’s’ Johan Heldenbergh as ‘Pissing in the North Wind’s’ director Gabriel goes a long way towards balancing their argument, the actor’s good nature and ease with these kids softening our reaction to some of his less considered methods.

In fact, the kids’ nickname for Gabriel, ‘Mr. Belgium,’ could be a reference to the Belgian filmmaking Dardennes brothers, who frequently cast non-professional actors in the type of social justice films Gabriel is aiming for.  But while the Dardennes’ films are dramas, “The Worst Ones” is more playful, the miserablist title of its film-within-a-film, a dated saying about never getting anywhere that would be unfamiliar to its subjects, itself a sly joke.

After the filmmakers introduce us to their four child actors, editor Albertine Lastera whisks outside to a scene of Ryan riding his bike around the Cité Picasso housing project and we are suddenly within Gabriel’s film.  Once he yells ‘cut,’ we’ll see the interior of one of the project’s apartments, Maylis’s obviously cash-strapped parents (the girl is one of six kids supported by her dad’s wages from a shrimp factory) allowing its use.  Another household, Ryan’s, upends our expectations, his sister Mélodie (Angélique Gernez) expressing concern over the film’s content as she helps him run his lines.

But the next day, Ryan can’t stop from grinning, sending Gabriel into a rant and when the scene resumes, the filmmaker allows the realism of a boys’ skirmish to go too far, his crew becoming alarmed.   Ryan, who has proudly proclaimed he never cries, exhibits tough nonchalance.   Gabriel will exhibit sensitivity coaching Jessy and Lily into how to convey being in love, then make us squirm staging a sex scene between the two, his concession to his young stars clearing the set of all but camera and sound.  And Lily, whose appearance belies her age until she beams a buck-toothed smile, appears to have caught the eye of 32 year-old crew member Victor (Matthias Jacquin), who’ll twirl her around the dance floor at a local bar. 

Gabriel’s film climaxes with a surreal scene featuring hundreds of pigeons which is hard to watch with a straight face, the production wrapping with the filmmaker facing angry Picasso residents who think he’s portrayed them in a bad light, in the end, his only lasting controversy.  Ryan, having shed tears in the film’s final scene, proudly tells his director ‘See, I did the emotion.’

Young Mahaut is indeed quite the find, cinematographer Eric Dumont’s bright lensing making portraiture of these young faces, Mahaut recalling the tragedy/comedy mask with his tough/cherubic countenance.  Wanecque is also a natural, the nonprofessional most likely to be recast in future films.  Pech acts the tough guy, sexually harassing his costar until, confronted with Lily in a love scene, he exhibits vulnerability.  Young Vanderplancke’s expression is that of an old, burdened soul.  The film’s casting assistant, Esther Archambault, is also quite good as Gabriel’s assistant Judith, a younger confidante for the cast.  Rapper Rémy supplies soundtrack cuts and appears in a concert scene.    

“The Worse Ones” marks not only an impressive feature debut, but stands as one of the better movies about the film business.

Robin's Review: B

A filmmaker, Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh), takes his camera into the economically and socially challenged Picasso neighborhood of Boulogne-sur-Mer to make a movie of the hard life condition. He recruits four young local adolescents as its players but there are questions about using, as actors, “The Worst Ones.”

Gabriel’s talent scouts go into the rough Picasso ‘hood to find the young, non-acting talent to star in his gritty film of cultural realism. Four of the local kids are selected, two boys and two girls – Ryan (Timeo Mahaut), Jessy (Loic Pech), Lily (Mallory Wanecque) and Maylis (Melanie Vanderplancke) – and both parents and teachers question the selection. Why, they ask, would he pick the dregs of the neighborhood as the stars of the film?

The movie within a movie is written and directed by Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret (with Elenore Gurrey also credited on the script) and it immerse the viewer into the hard-scrabbled world of the Picasso. The problem director Gabriel faces is he is giving his young actors a hope of something different in their lives. Truth be told, thay are merely pawns in the director’s scheme of things.

As such, we get to know the youngsters, especially hyperactive, short-attention deficit Ryan, who Gabriel has singled out in his desire for “realism,” shows the greatest depth of the four. Each, though, has his/her own story and there is scant difference between their own real lives and that of the characters they are playing. It is a hard knowledge that their future is undeniably linked to their present.

Kino Lorber released "The Worst Ones" in select theaters on 3/24/23.  It is available digitally on 5/23/23.