Drug-dealing and reciting poetry in the Paris-projects are unlikely companions in a story about two teenage boys who find themselves selling hashish to make cash for their families.
Mamadou (Ali Bidanessy) the achingly cute younger side-kick to 14 year-old protagonist Adama (Balamine Guirassy) finds a large lump of hashish, and pockets it like a dropped 10-euro note. Money is scarce: Adama’s mother works night-shifts and the two share a run-down one-bed apartment. There is little indication that Mamadou’s situation is better. And so, for good reason, Adama and Mamadou decide to sell the drugs for an impressive stack of cash. They are rather good at it, and grab the attention of a local gang-leader …
This is Mathieu Vadepied’s first feature as a director. He was the director of photography for the feel-good comedy 2011 hit Intouchables (The Intouchables) and so it’s no surprise that La Vie en Grand is not a piece of social realism. This isn’t a gritty expose of gang-land Paris, and shouldn’t be judged as one.
Vadepied shoots in a simple, natural light, keen to make the story as clear as a conversation on a park bench beneath a midday sky. Just like Intouchables, this is an optimistic film remarkable for its charismatic casting and life-affirming belief in the power of humanity to bring change for good.
La Vie en Grand’s success hinges (for the most part) on the boys’ performances. Bidanessy and Guirassy came to the set as non-professional actors. I met both actors at the Festival Film Francophone d’Angouleme a couple of months ago. One year on from production, they looked considerably older. Vadepied was fortunate to shoot Guirassy in that brief magic moment between teenager and young man, like the short period of time before a choirboy’s voice breaks and it is at its purest.
While Bidanessy, the younger one, looks innocent and as comic as a newly hatched chick, there is a strong sense that Guirassy is playing himself through the character of Adama. He is touchingly altruistic for a 14 year-old, and with the gentleness of an old soul, decides to spend the drug-money profits on a washing machine for his mum and shoes for his friends.
Vadepied asserts a romantic upholding of education and poetry as protective havens. Adama and Mamadou store and divide up the dope on school premises: one evening, after working hard into the night, they fall asleep in the sports hall underneath gym mattresses. Spending lots of time within the bastion of the school building, also gives Adama time to focus on his studies: his grades shoot up and he impresses his teacher by enjoying reciting chunks of poetry by Louis Aragon.
Fans of Nordic Noir’s The Bridge will be surprised to hear the melancholy soundtrack ‘Hollow Talk’ by The Choir of Young Believers layer the film’s one ‘heist’ scene. The music tips the film into a deep sigh, reminding us life is a struggle for Adama and Mamadou. Thanks to a teacher’s thoughtfulness, Adama is given the opportunity to make a change, but as the credits begin to roll, we can’t help but wonder, with a maternal heart, what will happen to the sweet Mamadou.
Director: Mathieu Vadepied (2015)