A freckled girl, Maylis (Mélina Vanderplancke), sits in a classroom that has been turned into a casting venue. Her gaze could be described as apathetic were it not for the way she challenges Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh), a fictional filmmaker, at the start of the keen drama “The Worst Ones,” from Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret. Those two real directors’ movie follows Gabriel as he films in an economically depressed neighborhood in Northern France. That Gabriel gives Maylis a nonspeaking role speaks volumes.
The faces of Vanderplancke and the other nonprofessional actors here are memorable, as are their gazes. And this is one the conceits of Akoka and Gueret’s movie (which they wrote with Eléonore Gurrey): a gaze can resist objectification.
The title comes from Maylis’s shrewd observation about whom Gabriel intends to cast — and why. Maylis is one of four youngsters the filmmaker and his assistant hire. He casts Lily (Mallory Wanecque), struggling with grief after her brother’s death, as the lead, a pregnant 15-year-old. Gabriel chooses the pint-size brawler Ryan (Timéo Mahaut) to be Lily’s little brother. Ryan has found a haven with his sister, Mélodie (a terrific Angélique Gernez). Also cast: Jessy (Loïc Pech), an initially cocky and grateful 17-year-old.
Gabriel’s interest in marginalized children is authentic, if exploitative. Akoka and Gueret get at that tension by widening their focus to include their character’s lives, as well as glimpses of a wisely wary community.
Luminously photographed and nimbly edited, “The Worst Ones” — which won the Un Certain Regard competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022 — offers a provocative critique of filmmaking practices. It also presents a subtle defense of the onscreen miracles revealed by the young and the raw.
The Worst Ones
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. In theaters.