The subject of street kids in film has often proven thorny, with films as diverse as Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Larry Clarke’s Kids sparking controversy around film ethics. Here, first-time feature filmmakers Romane Gueret and Lise Akoka – who were both casting directors in the past – use film within a cinematic structure to explore the moral questions raised when a moving train film rolls in a less than salubrious suburb of Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France.
There’s also an apparent documentary element to the film, as it seems likely that the initial screen tests and cast interviews we see at the start of the film are from actual sessions the directors had with the children. It is here that we meet little Ryan (Timéo Mahault), a pre-teen full of attitude, the teenager Lily (Mallory Wanecque) and the young Jessy (Loich Pech) of 17 around whom the main part of movie action.
A number of directors will tell you that they are looking for raw talent when working with children, and you can immediately see that Mahault and Wanecque have it in spades. “It seems like you only take the worst ones,” someone observes, raising the question that will run through the film about how much of children’s real-life issues are exploited in the name of art, and to what extent their lives will be affected by the machinations of filmmaking.
Rather than having a villain in his own right, director Gabriel – notably Belgian, so already one step away from the situation he’s thrust himself into – is portrayed with a mixture of seriousness and barely detectable desperation by Johan Heldenbergh. Pissing Into The North Wind – surely a bit of an off-the-cuff title in a movie that’s best when it comes to more subtle satire – is something he obviously considers his “life’s work”, his earnest comic in front of everyone else.
On set, Ryan plays a heartbreaking youngster with an unhappy family life, something not a million miles from the little boy’s own experience, as we see him living with his sister, as his mother tries to regain custody. Meanwhile, Lily, who plays a pregnant teenager, is thrilled to be “a star” because the usual attention she gets from kids at school is of the negative “slut shaming” kind. “Once you’re a slut, you’re always a slut,” she says, indicating how easy it is for a youngster to become “classified” in the eyes of their peers. This movie is kind of an escape for her, although we see her start imagining a romance, we can feel her fiction has little chance of coming true.
As filming continues, we feel the shifting dynamic as allegiances begin to form on set. Gueret and Akoka don’t mean that cinema is bad for young actors – after all, to do that would be like shooting their own movie in the foot. While the directors are definitely aiming to highlight the dangers, most evident in a scene where Ryan is encouraged to lose his temper for real and get into a fierce fight and another in which a love scene between Jessy and Lily is handled in the most amateurish way. possible, there is also a sense of camaraderie between the children. The movie’s wider side-shots of cinematic poverty porn, like the title of the film within a film, are a bit of a stretch, though they make for some impressive visuals in a scene in which a load of painted pigeons are unleashed. – a minor Cannes trend this year, in that the same type of birds also have a supporting role in L’Eau.
Best at its most subtle moments, when it not only explores the difference between what is filmed and reality by the fictions the characters also invent for themselves, the film is made compelling by its own immaculate cast even if, given of his subject, you have to wonder what will happen next for Mahault, Wanecque and Pech now that the camera has stopped rolling.
Reviewed on: May 24, 2022