“I never cry because I never hurt.”
This is what preteen protagonist Ryan insists at the start of the drama “Les Pires” (“The Worst Ones”), which premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival on May 22. In Boulogne-sur-mer in Northern France, Ryan and several other local kids and teens living in the Pablo Picasso housing project have been recruited to star in a film that will be shot in their neighborhood. While some community members question why the director Gabriel (Johan Heldenberg) wants to cast “the worst ones” — the most troubled kids in the area — Gabriel says he wanted to cast them because the characters in his film don’t have easy lives, similar to Ryan and the other children. “Les Pires” examines the ethics of this style of realist filmmaking, especially when it involves children, while also delving into the personal lives of the kids-turned-actors. Writer-directors Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret craft a self-aware film that features sensitive performances, a touching emotional arc, and compelling commentary on the social responsibilities of filmmakers.
Four local children are set to star in the film within the film, titled “Pissing into the Northern Wind,” a drama about a pregnant teenager who takes care of her siblings. Lily (Mallory Wanecques) is cast in the starring role as the pregnant teen. Lily herself is a sweet, lighthearted girl who is reeling from the loss of her little brother to cancer while also dealing with her reputation as a “slut.” Then there’s Jessy (Loïc Pech), who is cast as Lily’s boyfriend; Jessy is a defensive and often obnoxious 17-year-old who doesn’t hesitate to make offensive, immature jokes to his peers. The shy but fierce Maylis (Mélina Vanderplancke) plays one of the many siblings in “Pissing into the Northern Wind.” Finally, there’s the angry yet playful Ryan (Timéo Mahaut) who is taken care of by his older sister, much like the character he is cast to play.
“Les Pires” focuses mainly on the lives of Ryan and Lily, complex characters who are brought to life with an immense amount of empathy by Mahaut and Wanecques. In a film about realist filmmaking, their dynamic acting grounds “Les Pires” in a sense of authenticity. With the story of “Pissing into the Northern Wind” at times reflecting their own life experiences, Ryan and Lily end up processing their complicated emotions through their characters — an effectively evocative aspect of “Les Pires” that results in gratifying character development. Ryan’s emotional breakthrough in which he finally cries while filming a scene is a particularly powerful moment. It’s also heartwarming to see the children bond with each other and with crew members through the filmmaking process. Specifically, Lily and production assistant Judith (Esther Archambault) form a touching friendship in which they’re able to be vulnerable with each other. A scene in which Lily opens up to Judith about her grief following the death of her little brother is deeply moving, strengthened by their natural rapport.
Not everything on set is perfect, however, as is demonstrated in Akoka and Gueret’s exposure of the questionable side of Gabriel’s quest for realism with the use of non-actors. The filming of a fight scene results in a genuinely unhinged brawl between the child actors, but Gabriel is glad to get some authentic footage and doesn’t rush to break it up. Later, things get uncomfortable when Lily and Jessy, who are both minors, film a sex scene; Gabriel insists they speak up if anything feels wrong, and Jessy accuses a crew member of ogling his body, hurling homophobic slurs in the process. This controversy leads to many people questioning Gabriel’s intentions and morals. The various mishaps on set raise important questions about the stakes of creating authentic art: What does it mean to create a safe space for (inexperienced) artists? What does it mean to go into an underprivileged community for the sake of capturing “realism,” and who defines realism in the first place?
In the end, “Les Pires” doesn’t offer clean-cut answers to these questions. However, Akoka and Gueret still offer a provocative critique of how some artists will search relentlessly for authenticity without thoroughly considering how they are impacting the individuals or communities they are showcasing. In “Les Pires,” lines are crossed and lines are blurred — gray areas are plentiful throughout the film. Perhaps the children cast in “Pissing into the Northern Wind” were being exploited and didn’t always feel comfortable, but many of them still had meaningful experiences on set. The tension between these two truths could have been explored more thoroughly, but the film still does an effective job of balancing the ethical and the personal. Perhaps Gabriel’s intention was indeed to humanize those children considered “the worst ones” in his film. Whether or not he was successful remains a mystery, but Akoka and Gueret’s exploration of the children’s inner lives is still an emotional triumph.
—Arts Chair Jaden S. Thompson can be reached at email@example.com