First-time feature filmmaker Ladj Ly makes a galvanizing debut with "Les Misérables," France's entry to the Academy Awards that was nominated for an Oscar earlier this week.
The title is both misleading and disarmingly on point: Set in the embattled Paris suburb of Montfermeil - where Ly grew up and still lives - this contemporary drama calls back to Victor Hugo's classic novel but doesn't retell it. The references are subtle but unmistakable in a story fueled by brutal inequality, bureaucratic apathy, obsession and incendiary rage. It's as old as time, even when it involves cellphones, drones and other modern-day signifiers.
As it happens, Montfermeil figured in the literary version of "Les Misérables," as the home of the street urchin Gavroche. In Ly's film, that character could be transposed on to Issa (Issa Perica), a young troublemaker whom we meet just as France is winning the World Cup, a moment of delirious mayhem during which the streets of Paris come alive with celebration and fluttering tricolor flags.
It's an exhilarating introduction to Issa's world, which in Montfermeil is far less optimistic. A rundown housing project that's home to more than 30 nationalities, the neighborhood is a volatile tinderbox of factions and competing tribes, its tenuous peace held together by shaky alliances born of uneasy proximity. While Issa and his friends (contemptuously called "bugs" by some of their elders) run amok with varying degrees of abandon, they're observed by their neighbors - including the Muslim Brotherhood, a local power broker and his minions and a group of no-nonsense high school girls - as well as crime-busting cops, one of whom, a tightly coiled veteran named Chris (Alexis Manenti), has a particularly short fuse.
It's no surprise when, after bizarre events and not a few disastrous decisions, Chris becomes the vengeful Javert of "Les Misérables," although viewers won't want to get too bogged down in the literary parallels. With a graceful, expressively classical filming style, Ly not only captures the world he knows but builds a fictional one that weaves in and out of it, inviting the audience into a society and culture that is far more complicated than it appears on five-minute news reports. (Ly was inspired to make "Les Misérables" by the 2006 riots, which began in his building in Montfermeil.) There are moments when the filmmaker's plotting is too schematic to be thoroughly convincing; but his characters, their environment and desperation are believable enough to overcome even the most convenient story twist.
Interestingly enough, some of those developments are based on real life, including the arrival of a well-meaning new cop (played with quiet soulfulness by Damien Bonnard) and a theft that is far more exotic than a loaf of bread. As "Les Misérables" anxiously builds to its explosive climax, it becomes a heartbreaking group portrait of Issa and his cohorts, who are continually let down, sold out and betrayed by adults who should know and do better.
With "Les Misérables," Ly delivers a passionate protest on behalf of an entire generation, whose future has largely been foreclosed. His, on the other hand, is astonishingly bright.