The Worst Ones
(France, 99 min)
Dir. Romane Gueret, Lise Akoka
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema
Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, The Worst Ones is an audacious manipulation of audience expectation. There’s a fascinating push-pull at the film’s core that draws one in even as it fosters critical distance. Its unique strategy creates both a verité intimacy and a dramatic flair.
Not content to merely blur the line between fiction and reality, filmmakers Romane Gueret and Lise Akoka boldly dissect the film within a film form. They raise crucial questions about a creative process that so intrinsically depends on the commitment of others. Almost in contrast to these lofty ideals, The Worst Ones also has a genuine tenderness for its subjects, offering a poignant study of humanity.
Set in the suburbs of Boulogne-Sur-Mer in northern France, the central narrative revolves around Belgian director Gabriel’s (Johan Heldenbergh) efforts to create a film about a pregnant teen, Lily (Mallory Wanecque), and her younger brother, Ryan (Timéo Mahault). During the casting process Gabriel strives to find troubled teenagers who can bring lived experience to the proposed characters’ hardships.
The self-absorbed director is a familiar type in cinema, one that aims to achieve a gritty realism even in casting. By using non-actors, he is hoping to achieve a deeper level of authenticity but he’s not really fooling anyone. In a brilliant self-reflexive moment, one of the kids quips that he is simply looking for “the worst ones.”
Right from the outset, The Worst Ones plays with one’s perceptions and signals its intentions to keep shaking the viewer out of a comfortable state of complacency. In a clever bit of trickery, the filmmakers enact a familiar interview set up that kick starts the fiction.
Gabriel and his crew spend the rest of the film coaxing the individuals to share their private realities during the very process of the filmmaking. Important questions about responsibility arise when he callously allows a fight scene with Ryan to go on for too long, resulting in actual violence. He is also shockingly negligent with his actors while staging a sex scene between Lily and her boyfriend, Jessy (Loic Pech).
In The Worst Ones, Gueret and Akoka create a documentary experience around the making of their own film. Sliding so easily between the story of troubled youths and their on-set experiences, The Worst Ones is not a passive viewing experience nor is it a tiresome formalized chore. Gueret and Akoka so skillfully manipulate one’s perceptions as to create a bold elision between process and content. At the same time, they create a poignant drama about working class kids, which is a rich and engaging experience no matter how you look at it.
The Worst Ones takes the viewer on a sometimes-brutal journey, and it remains rewarding through to its final moments. In fact, the closing scene is a particular stroke of genius. For all of its heartbreaking honesty, there’s a vital and quite touching life affirming spirit that prevails.