‘Learn by Heart’ ('La Vie en Grand'): Cannes Review

A sweet but unexceptional tale of tween-age drug dealers

French DP Mathieu Vadepied ('The Intouchables') makes his directing debut with this tale of life in the Parisian ghetto, starring non-pro child actors Balamine Guirassy and Ali Bidanessy.

Unveiled in Cannes' Critics' Week (the similarly plotted but tonally different American indie comedy Dope was playing down the street at Directors' Fortnight), French dramedy Learn by Heart revolves around two pre-teen Afro-French boys trying to scam their way out of the ghetto. The latest in a growing line of social-issue-themed comedies from distributor Gaumont after The Intouchables and Samba (the latter was also co-produced by Heart's Ten Films), this feature debut from cinematographer-turned-director Mathieu Vadepied (who shot Intouchables) is a sweet, if slight, work, encumbered with some plausibility issues that could limit its appeal unless it's marketed at a younger demographic. However, Vadepied deserves praise for coaxing strong performances from soulful lead Balamine Guirassy as the rookie drug baron and comically gifted Ali Bidanessy as his pint-sized wingman. The film opens locally in September.

Shot in and around a vast banlieue (housing project) in Northern Paris, Learn by Heart unfolds in a world riddled by poverty and crime much like any other ghetto, but one that's nevertheless also distinctively French in its multicultural mix of whites, Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans dwelling in now-decrepit modernist-era housing stock.

Fourteen-year-old protagonist Adama (non-pro Guirassy, who could have a future as an actor ahead if he wants it) is failing at school because he has more pressing issues on his mind than English lessons and French poetry. He lives with his mother (musician Leontina Fall), a cleaner, in a shabby one-bedroom apartment, and because Mom often works night shifts, most of the domestic chores fall on his slim shoulders. France's anti-polygamy laws have forcibly separated Adama's mom from his Senegalese father, impoverishing both mother and child, and his older brother has been sent home as punishment by the severe patriarch for getting involved in the local criminal gangs, leaving Adama with no nearby male role model.

When Adama's younger schoolmate Mamadou (Bidanessy, adorable) finds a sizeable lump of hashish on the ground after a drug raid, Adama sees an opportunity to go into business selling it off wrap by wrap, particularly to wealthier white kids in a neighborhood nearby. Having worked out how to play the system safely by ensuring he and Mamadou hold the cash and the stash separately, things go swimmingly until they catch the eye of grown-up dealer Kevin (Aristide Tarnagda). Seeing that the boys' youth makes them more invisible to the police, Kevin bullies them into dealing larger and larger chunks of gear. Anyone who has ever had close contact with adolescent boys knows to their cost that they are perpetually losing things (sweaters, keys, their bikes), so Kevin's trust in their competence is either fantastically ill-judged or an implausibility that the film simply doesn't think viewers will question.

However, as it happens the drug-dealing plotline is really just there as the unlikely grease for a larger story about redemption, which like Cannes competition-entrant Standing Tall is rigged subtly to flatter French public services, in this case the education system rather Standing child-protection agencies. It turns out that the best place Adama and Mamadou can find to hid their stash is in a disused room of their school, and this motivates Adama into applying himself to his studies, lest expulsion ends up messing with his business. Eventually, he ends up not only learning poems by Louis Aragon off by heart (hence the title), but also actually understanding them and enjoying academic pursuits, setting things up for a rather hastily contrived if emotionally satisfying happy ending.

Elsewhere, the film is equally at pains to accentuate the positive. Proving themselves to be possibly the most abstemious drug dealers in cinematic history, the boys never once get high on their own supply. And once they've amassed a brick-sized stack of cash, Adama's reward for himself isn't new sneakers or some tech to play computer games on, like it would be with most kids his age, but, bless him, a new washing machine for his mother.  But, corny as that sounds, Vadepiedand his cast manage to sell it by not laying the sugar on too thick, and making sure the lesser characters — from Guillaume Gouix's altruistic homeroom teacher to Bass Dhem as a local tramp who helps Adama out of tight spot by impersonating his dad all too well — are believably human and flawed.

Surprisingly, given Vadepied's own background as a DP, visually the film, which was shot by Bruno Romiguiere, is a surprisingly flat and unfussy, favoring natural light and unobtrusive setups throughout. There's nothing wrong with that, especially as it reinforces the sense that all the style is there in the service of the story.

Production companies: A Unite de Production, Ten Films production
Cast: Balamine Guirassy, Ali Bidanessy, Guillaume Gouix, Josephine De Meaux, Léontina Fall,Adama Camara, Bass Dhem, Aristide Tarnagda, Marion Ploquin
Director: Mathieu Vadepied
Screenwriter:Olivier Demangel, Vincent Poymiro, Mathieu Vadepied
Producer: Bruce Nahon
Director of photography: Bruno Romiguiere
Editor: Marie-Pierre Frappier
Production designer: Alexandre Vivet
Costume designer: Anne-Sophie Gledhill
Composer: Flemming Nordkrog
Casting: Elsa Pharaon
Sales: Gaumont

No rating, 93 minutes

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