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The Worst Ones – BFI London Film Festival Review

The Worst Ones – BFI London Film Festival Review

A film crew, led by debut director Gabriel (Johan Heldeburgh), have come to a working-class neighbourhood in France to cast for their movie about working-class French kids. Whilst the crew are excited about the extra level of realism this will achieve, they haven’t quite counted on the effect the shoot will have on their young non-professional actors – The Worst Ones follows the ups and downs of their journey.

As if the whole concept of Lise Akoke and Romane Gueret’s Cannes-winning movie wasn’t meta enough, they too have populated The Worst Ones with a young cast making their feature film debuts. Timéo Mahaut is Ryan, whose volcanic bursts of anger stem from a horribly difficult home life. Mallory Wanecque plays Lily, who develops a ferocious crush on the movie’s boom operator (Matthias Jacquin), whilst still mourning the recent death of her younger brother. Then there’s Mélina Vanderplancke as Mayliss, who’s struggling to come to terms with her sexuality. Across the board, their performances are terrific – but in actually using the casting process that the film itself is critiquing, The Worst Ones does leave itself open to claims of hypocrisy, or exploitation.

Having said that, Akoke and Gueret aren’t arguing here that the use of non-professional child actors is inherently damaging; their view is more even-handed. There are unquestionable acts of callous manipulation depicted, such as when Gabriel uses his knowledge of Ryan’s sore spots to prod the anger-prone little boy into an outburst of onscreen fury. And there’s a sex scene between Lily and her belligerent peer Jessy (Loïc Pech) that Gabriel handles so ineptly, it becomes difficult to watch.

But there are the more complicated emotional matters too. This crew lands in the world of a group of underprivileged kids dealing with hugely challenging personal circumstances, and starts treating them like the movie stars they’re about to become. The kids make friends, discover talents they didn’t know they had, and revel in being given the A-list treatment for the first time in their young lives. For at least a little while, they thrive – but the shoot isn’t going to last forever. There’s a chance that this film will lead to careers for the children, but the much bigger likelihood is that they’ll have to return to an existence that has not been treating them as well as the movie crew have. How will they deal with that? Will they end up wishing they were never cast? The Worst Ones ends before we get any answers, but it leaves those questions hanging loudly in the air.

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The Worst Ones could have been a biting satire about the human cost of artistic delusions of grandeur – that it’s not is no bad thing. Akoke and Gueret approach their movie with a more curious perspective, and are interested in exploring the issue rather than passing judgement, which gives the film an appealing warmth; even Gabriel, who starts off as a complete oaf, is granted a real measure of humanity. Whilst this approach does lead to a certain diffuseness in the storytelling that means the narrative isn’t as dramatically satisfying as it might have been, ultimately The Worst Ones’ deep generosity of spirit wins the day.

★★★★

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