To create cinema, to tell a story, to perform in a film…these are all seemingly enjoyable yet inherently painful and arduous, simply because as a storyteller or performer, there’s quite a bit of yourself in what goes on screen. As well as you dissolve in the character you’re creating, and as good as you are in distancing yourself from what’s on the page, The Worst Ones argues that no good performance and no good film ever come from nowhere. And this is precisely what the film is interested to explore.
One of the most pleasant surprises at TIFF this year, Romane Gueret and Lise Akoka have managed to make The Worst Ones both contemplative and touching, asking several urgent and timely questions about filmmaking while plunging us in the world of its two central characters as we see them try to bring their scripted characters to life. It’s a film-within-a-film, a rare feature that masterfully blurs the line between narrative and documentary to create a wholesome, unique experience. You’ll find yourself questioning, or even puzzled, as to which parts of the film are staged and which parts are actually true – and that sense of doubt, questioning the level of sincerity of what’s on screen is exactly the point of the film.
The story focuses on Gabriel (an excellent, highly believable Johan Heldenbergh) who is finally making his first film. This seems to be quite the dream for Gabriel, a long-in-the-works personal project titled ‘Pissing in the North Wind’. Going for authenticity and maximum emotional impact, he decides to hire non-professional actors and goes on extensive casting calls in the suburbs of Boulogne-Sur-Mer, one of France’s lowest-income regions.
The film opens with these casting calls, as inexperienced actors face the camera and get to answer Gabriel’s questions about themselves. In one particular interview, Gabriel explains that, because the film is about young characters undergoing hardship, he is looking for children who haven’t had easy lives. The child being interviewed responds that it seems like he is looking for ‘the worst ones.’ And it’s true – Gabriel makes it no secret that he is indeed looking for performers who can exhibit vulnerability on screen – but how much of that is exploitation, or is it simply smart casting?
From that point on, the film shifts back and forth between the actual filming of Gabriel’s film and the lives his characters lead off-screen. It’s a blend that perfectly works of the film as we see the impact of filming on the two young central characters, as they struggle with off-screen traumas that influence their identity as tormented human beings as well as their on-screen performances. Just as the film smartly blurs the line between documentary and narrative devices, Gabriel’s approach to bringing out the best performances out of his two leads can sometimes be manipulative, perhaps even inappropriate to some, as he attempts to trigger their inner emotions, past traumas, and vulnerability to bring out the best in them.
But these ethical questions, about when to draw the lines when working with young non-professionals, is just one of the many important points the film tries to make. Perhaps even more illuminating is the impact of filming on its characters – as we follow them off-screen, the film shows us two different, but related, results: in the case of a young boy with a troubled home, filming seems to be somewhat therapeutic, as he starts to make peace with his own suppressed anger and learns how to formulate, make peace with, and express his inner emotions. For his on-screen partner, a teenage girl, filming seems to have been liberating and empowering – as she stands up for herself and fights for her self worth. It’s also an escape from a tumultuous present, a way that makes acting a sort of safe space where she can be anybody, where she is allowed to dream, and oddly, truly be herself when that’s not always possible off-screen.
Deeply insightful, The Worst Ones is both cerebral and emotional, asking questions and letting us draw our own conclusions. A remarkable achievement of filmmaking and human compassion.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.