THE STORY – Eager to capture performances of gritty authenticity, a director selects four working-class teenagers, considered “the worst ones” in the town, to act in his film. As the director and crew audition, rehearse, film, and interact with their hand-picked cast, jealousies are stoked, lines are crossed, and ethical questions arise, with thought-provoking and, at times, darkly funny results.
THE CAST – Mallory Wanecque, Timéo Mahaut, Johan Heldenbergh, Loïc Pech, Mélina Vanderplancke & Esther Archambault
THE TEAM – Lise Akoka, Romane Gueret (Directors/Writers) & Eleonore Gurrey (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes
We expect incredible performances from Hollywood’s biggest and brightest actors, but when those plucked off the street deliver equally good portrayals, we take note. French cinema, in particular, has had great success with street casting, despite the practice raising eyebrows. Though these newcomers can deliver raw and emotional scenes, often dealing with difficult subject matters they have personal experience with, it makes viewers question just how ethical and exploitative it is.
Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret’s “The Worst Ones” dives into the ugly nature of street casting with a film within a film. The Cannes Un Certain Regard winner presents us with two perspectives: the production of a film and the often problematic happenings on set, and the tough reality the young stars face in their working-class town. Through dark humor and egregious moments on set, “The Worst Ones” makes us wonder if those incredible deliveries are worth the harm they may cause their performers.
Flemish director Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh), at age 54, is finally putting out his first feature. It’s a very personal project to him, interestingly titled “Pissing in the North Wind,” that involves a pregnant teenager, her younger brother, and the happenings in their lives. Hoping to bring as much authenticity to the project as possible, he scouts for young talent in the northern French working-class town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Through audition footage, we see Gabriel speak to those who are considered the “worst ones” in the town. There’s Lily (Mallory Wanecque), Jessy (Loïc Pech), Ryan (Timéo Mahaut), and Maylis (Mélina Vanderplancke) – all rotten eggs at first glance, but each carrying a pain of some kind.
Most people in Boulogne-sur-Mer discounted these youngsters long ago. But, one look at the authentic and vulnerable work they put into the film is enough to prove their naysayers all wrong. These young actors do double-duty here, not only playing the characters of “Pissing in the North Wind” but also their “real” selves when they’re not filming. Moments where these actors get to shine are when we see what they’re struggling with in their day-to-day lives. Youngster Ryan lives with his sister, but his mother wants him back home, and we see him struggle to understand his situation and what would be best moving forward. Lily also has a reputation in town for being promiscuous, and other young girls and boys relentlessly bully her.
Unfortunately, those real-life experiences are often exploited by Gabriel, taking us to the film’s most poignant moments. As these youth open up to their director during filming, he finds ways to use their troubled past to bring even more pizazz to the camera. In one scene in which Ryan is supposed to fight another young boy, Gabriel pulls one aside and encourages him to taunt Ryan about his mother, something the young boy noted in his audition as the worst thing one could do. It leads to a very heated fight between the two boys, with crew members doing all they can to pull them away from each other and Gabriel doing nothing to break it up. In another, Gabriel shares very intimate details from a past relationship to help prepare Lily and Jessy for a sex scene (and, of course, there’s no intimacy coordinator on set). The director then pushes even more boundaries during the filming process, making the whole scene so uncomfortable and gross.
These moments and more make us wonder just how far directors push freshly-plucked talent to get those natural performances that we all fawn over and if it’s worth it in the end. To see Ryan struggle to decompress after that fight or Lily continuously talked about in such a misogynistic and disgusting way doesn’t seem like it is worth the pain. Ironically enough, “The Worst Ones” recruited non-actors for the youth roles, and we can’t help but hope that those on-set conditions were much better than the ones portrayed.
“The Worst Ones” brings up a fascinating look at industry practices, but it doesn’t go all in or offer any solutions. A unique perspective only briefly discussed is how filming affects locals and the town itself, especially since “Pissing in the North Wind” shows quite a bad image of the area. How should movies capture real places and people? Should these movies be a window into reality, or should everything be reimagined, so people don’t get the wrong idea? Not to mention, isn’t “The Worst Ones” doing exactly the same thing it’s trying to show is wrong? We don’t get those answers here, but this may inspire another film to dive deeper.