Review: ‘The Worst Ones’

The confluence of documentary and fiction often yields playful, insightful results. From Lionel Togosin’s On the Bowery (1957) to the more modern exercises of Abbas Kiarostami or Robert Greene, this hybrid style allows the filmmaker to bend, smother, or even break the traditional narrative rules of storytelling.

Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret’s Cannes prize winning The Worst Ones features some of the same twisted strands of truth and fiction. They don’t break the rules, but craft a captivating hybrid nonetheless. The ideas behind it need some unpacking and a description of their wonderful effort doesn’t quite do the film justice. Regardless of its enveloped style, The Worst Ones crumbles raw and honest emotion around the edges of a film that keeps one guessing whether it’s real or scripted.

In the hopes of casting fresh faces, filmmaker Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh) comes to an impoverished neighborhood in France. We first meet the youngsters he will eventually cast as the leads in his film through their VHS audition tapes where they’re fidgety, unsure everyday kids with lots of pimples and bad posture.

The oldest are Lily (Mallory Wanecque) and Jessy (Loic Pech). The younger are Maylis (Melanie Vanderplancke) and the volatile Ryan (Timeo Mahaut). The film follows each one as they deal with their real life troubles- absent parents, adolescent horniness, and the general slog of their rough and tumble neighborhoods- and the ones presented to them on set by the film crew.

Slowly but surely, The Worst Ones breaks from its pretend documentary style and makes the viewer realize we’re firmly in Dardennes-style low drama where the stakes of growing up eclipse any high drama of the film Gabriel is shooting. And each young performer is given their chance to shine. Focusing mostly on Lily and Ryan as things progress, we watch as Lily develops a crush on a much older production crew member. Ryan- constantly framed as if he’s a caged tiger just waiting to explode from the hard life he’s already experienced as a twelve year old- learns to coral his temper both in front and behind the camera. Maylis experiences a bolt to her burgeoning sexual person when she meets a production assistant (Esther Archambault). Her desire is explored in an astonishingly realized car drive where she becomes entranced by the wispy hair and rattling costume jewelry of the girl chauffeuring her to the set. The most broad of the group is Jessy…. all teenage bravado and tough talk until he’s placed under the microscope of filmmaking in a delicately rehearsed sex scene between himself and Lily.

Outside of this scene and a few featuring young Ryan, very little of Gabriel’s film is shown. Most of The Worst Ones power comes from life outside where the emotional stakes can never be rehearsed. It’s a film that shrewdly uses film production as a mirror to the real life of the kids involved.

Born out of the idea filmmakers Akoka and Gueret had while making a short film and their experience of casting it, The Worst Ones begins in that (assuredly) time consuming and arduous process, but ultimately shows that when a film finds the right people, it clicks into place. I’ve already name checked the Dardennes, but another name the film reminds me of is Olivier Assayas. The Worst Ones feels messy at times and strikingly resonant the next, and its lineage to the film-within-the-film is a staple of classic French cinema. The young actors (like in Assayas’ masterpiece Cold Water) stumble through life, love, and heartbreak with the same stone-faced resolve as Ryan and Lily do here. It’s a terrific film that ranks as one of the discoveries of this early movie going season. And just when one thinks the film’s documentary pose has been put to bed, the final scene forces us to reconsider the line between reality and fiction all over again.

The Worst Ones premiered in March at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendezvous With French Cinema. It opens on Friday March 24th in New York and April 7th in Los Angeles with a wider release scheduled in the coming weeks.