Review by Sean Boelman
It is well-known that it is hard to make films starring and about kids, and Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret’s The Worst Ones explores that process. In doing so, it definitely probes deeply and poses some interesting questions, but one has to wonder if the film is part of the problem, even if its heart is in the right place.
The film is about a group of teenagers who are street cast in a feature film as the lines between their lives and the film begin to blur. It’s an attempt at meta filmmaking that is certainly quite ambitious and earnest, but its observations are seldom as insightful as the filmmakers clearly hope it to be.
There are some interesting ideas here about the manipulation that can result from using non-actors — especially young non-actors — in a film production. However, in using nonprofessionals in this production itself, Akoka and Gueret weaken their argument to merely asking theoretical questions.
Johan Heldenbergh plays the director of the film-within-a-film and he does a good job of bringing a lot of approachability to a complex role. The character has two sides: is he the savior trying to give these troubled youth an opportunity, or the manipulator inserting himself into the lives of these children and young adults and pushing them in the wrong direction?
The film’s approach to the children is much less gray. It’s clear that we are meant to pity these children, not just for the situation that they are in, but also the fact that their plight is being milked for someone else’s advantage. Then again, watching a film that is in its own way also exploits these children feels rather… gross.
It is clear that Akoka and Gueret don’t intend for this to be all sunshine and roses. They want the audience to think about some of the more challenging aspects of this film and the film-within-a-film. But at a certain point, the film starts to fall victim to many of the issues that it is commenting on, and the result is hardly effective.
Akoka and Gueret do a great job of directing the film, creating these layers of reality that separate the film based on what is happening. It’s the type of narrative that could easily become difficult to follow because of all that is going on in it, but the directorial approach goes a long way in making everything more understandable.
The Worst Ones has a lot of intriguing elements that make it something to be recommended, but in trying to explore this gray area, it ends up in a gray area itself. Perhaps this is the type of challenging film that is necessary to start this conversation, even if it falls victim to those issues itself.
The Worst Ones debuted at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section.