You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can perhaps judge a fashion designer by their Instagram account.
This seems to be the case with French wunderkind Olivier Rousteing, who became the creative director of Balmain at age 25 — he was the youngest person to run such a brand since Yves Saint-Laurent — and went on to transform it into a major international player. His fan base includes Kanye West, Rihanna, the Kardashians and an army of “Balmaniacs” who follow his every movement online, where Rousteing constantly posts pics of celebrities and models, or selfies where we see him living a life of excess and luxury. (It doesn’t hurt that Rousteing, who’s now 33, looks like a model himself.)
And yet, in Anisse Bonnefont’s moving behind-the-scenes documentary Wonder Boy (Wonder Boy: Olivier Rousteing, né sous X), we get to see a completely different side of the designer — one that’s less Instagrammable, but much more revealing and poignant.
Tracking Rousteing’s laborious quest to learn about his own troubled origins, the movie is not your typical fashion story, uncovering a fair amount of pain and loneliness beneath all the glitter and gold (there’s lots of gold at Balmain). And although the film is too long and hagiographic in places, Wonder Boy offers another example, along with the excellent Alexander McQueen doc that came out last year, of how fashion designers can be complex, vulnerable artists under extreme pressure in a multibillion-dollar industry that we all love to hate. After a small French release, the film could see pickups abroad, especially for the small screen.
Over the course of what seems like a year, Bonnefont is given full access to Rousteing as he prepares new collections, stresses out over runway shows and travels the globe for events and photo shoots, including dressing J.Lo for the Met Gala. When he’s not working, which is most of the time, the designer kickboxes at the gym or sits around his massive Paris apartment, which is decorated as lavishly as his haute couture creations.
But all the blood, sweat and selfies only serve as background to the main story, which involves Rousteing trying to find out who he really is. Adopted as an infant under the French system known as “sous X,” where the original birth mother can ask for full anonymity and never be known to her child, the designer — who is either black or mixed race (he only learns of his true ethnic roots after receiving the results of a 23andMe test) — was raised by loving middle-class white parents near Bordeaux, until he left for Paris as a teenager to break into the fashion world.
Now that he’s made it big time, Rousteing makes it his business to discover who his natural parents are, or at least to try. It’s a painful experience that weighs on him deeply — “When your parents don’t want you, you ask why you are here,” he confesses at some point — but one that he hopes will give him a greater understanding of his own identity.
With the help of a social worker in Bordeaux, Rousteing is eventually granted access to his adoption file, and what he finds out about his real mother is shocking and sad. For someone who always seems to be posing like a statue for glam shots, Rousteing’s spontaneous reaction, where he completely breaks down at the regional adoption office, is a jarring moment that’s definitely the film’s emotional high point.
There are other moments, though, where Bonnefont seems to be too enamored with her subject or else feels to the need to show off his every single collection, as if we were watching a Balmain promo reel instead of a movie. Granted, we get to see what all the fuss is about Rousteing’s designs, but it’s not sure that anyone beyond fashionistas will be that interested.
More revealing are the scenes, often shot as the designer is driven around Paris, where we witness what a lonely life he truly leads. At one point, he confesses he signed up for a dating app in the hopes of meeting someone, and then explains that it’s a special VIP app linked to his Instagram account that will connect him to someone of his own pedigree. Later on in the film, he talks about all his friends, yet the only images of “friends” the movie provides are shots of his chauffeur and the support team over at Balmain.
In that sense, Wonder Boy comes across as more honest and real than most fashion documentaries, and you’ve got to give Bonnefont credit for digging deeper than usual, exposing the personality behind the façade that Rousteing likes to create for himself in public. In an industry obsessed with appearances, it’s rare to find someone trying to look far beneath the surface.
Tech credits are highlighted by Thomas Brémond’s warm and naturalistic cinematography, which offers a welcome anecdote to Balmain’s glossy advertisements. Soundtrack includes some of Rousteing’s favorite French pop songs, live music by Migos and bangers like French Montana’s “Unforgettable.”
Production companies: Stella Maris Pictures, Box Fish Productions
Director, producer: Anissa Bonnefont
Executive producer: Eve Brémond
Director of photography: Thomas Brémond
Editor: Guerric Catala
Composer: Yndi Da Silva