Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret – ‘The Worst Ones’
This first feature by directing team Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret is an unusual film-within-a-film, three years in the making, one which gives a moving glimpse of ordinary lives while very subtly touching on greater issues such as class conflict. The concept was given a test run with the 2016 short film Chasse Royale before being expanded into the full-fledged comedy-drama The Worst Ones (original title ‘Les Pires’). The film took the ‘Prix Un Certain Regard’ for that year, the Cannes Film Festival‘s award for innovative and non-traditional work, acknowledging its unique blend and interplay of acknowledged fiction with a quasi-documentary style.
The basic premise of The Worst Ones involves a film crew led by the central character Gabriel, a well-known Belgian director (Johan Heldenbergh). They are doing open casting of amateur children and teens in a community in northern France, then shooting the film in the same community, resulting in resentment among the locals when the chosen actors turn out to be mainly young people from a low-income housing project. The title derives from the neighbourhood’s objections to the film choosing “the worst ones” from the community population rather than more respectable representatives. The filmmakers note that this reaction was based directly on their own experiences when making a short film with disadvantaged young people as actors. Directors Akoka and Gueret drew inspiration from past work as children’s acting coaches; in an interview, the team said they found the idea of a collaboration between disadvantaged youths and an experienced adult film crew to have potential. They seem to have been right, as the interaction of the characters is engaging and reveals a great deal about both sides of the conversation.
What makes The Worst Ones unique is its technique of allowing art to comment on life and vice versa. The film is structured to alternate scenes of ‘real life,’ the daily activities and the home life of the children themselves, with scenes from the fictional film they appear in. The characters’ rehearsals and performances are carefully designed to enhance or comment on their real lives in subtle but effective ways. Family disputes, emotional problems, and other troubles the characters were shown to endure would be quietly referenced when the characters were rehearsing or acting. For example, in one carefully crafted scene, as two teenage actors are preparing for a love scene, the girl’s unearned ‘bad girl’ reputation, and the discomfort it causes her, emerges in the course of the discussion, while her fellow actor’s relentlessly cynical façade is slowly broken down by the acting exercises the director conducts, leaving him in a state of unfamiliar vulnerability. In another rather painful episode, real and fictional overlap, when a young boy being counselled for anger issues is to act in a scene involving a schoolyard fight. His genuine struggles with anger and violence, and his fear of losing control, seem to seep through the boy’s performance, leading to an emotional crisis. Even in less dramatic scenes, this overlay of reality and performance runs continually through the film. It is a composition that requires cinematic skill and a delicate touch.
The first stage in the actual making of The Worst Ones process replicates the plot, as the two directors and their casting director launched an extensive open casting process. The team spent a year visiting schools, children’s homes, and rehabilitation centres for minors, searching for the right amateurs. The chosen direction of their search also paralleled the film’s storyline: the filmmakers explained, “We massively casted in social and educational institutions where kids are in difficulty.” The filmmakers noted that this approach implied a certain responsibility, as “these children more than any others must be cared for and protected,” and took pains to prepare the young actors thoroughly for each scene they appeared in and to be sensitive to their concerns or fears. The dangers of unwittingly exploiting or mistreating child actors are touched on in The Worst Ones with great sensitivity. The choice of actor Johan Heldenbergh as the film’s director, Gabriel, makes this aspect of the film particularly effective. His Gabriel is kindly and genuinely respectful of the children he directs, but he is also a tall, confident adult, in charge, and clearly regarded as the children’s superior. Despite his precautions, he repeatedly crosses or blurs lines or places undue pressure on the young actors. Akoka and Gueret spoke of the care they took, portraying the ambivalence involved in this kind of relationship and exploring the complex ethics of artistic expression in which human subjects are involved.
The film is not only an objective story about young people and their lives, on and off camera. It is also an affectionate visual celebration of childhood and youth. Careful camera work forces the audience to see the beauty in the children’s faces, their expressions, and their physical movements. Akoka and Gueret speak fondly of the young actors and speak of their efforts to “place spectators in our shoes,” making the audience see what was special about the children. That, they explain, is why they began the film with casting interviews, in which the children speak directly to the camera, often in close-up, showcasing their faces. “All have fascinating faces and gazes,” the directors commented, “and it was our job to enhance this….” Making the audience intimately familiar with the young cast members humanises them and makes them relatable, which carries the viewer through the children’s shabby life and sometimes objectionable attitudes or behaviour.
The fully formed characters and the empathetic view of their lives sustain interest throughout the film, but the plot is also entertaining on its own, due to a nicely managed mix of drama, and even tragedy, with light comedy. The story comes together in a perfect final scene, one which combines the characters’ pain, their aspirations, and their sometimes disguised innocence in a poignant but joyful shared moment that brings the entire story together.
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