Little Lion: Film Review

Little Lion Still - H 2013

Little Lion Still - H 2013

Appealing performances overcome sports-drama cliches.

French acting vet Marc Barbe delves into social realism, effectively paired with young newcomer Mytri Attal.

Human trafficking gets an altogether different spin in Little Lion, a realistic drama set in the world of competitive French soccer leagues. The film’s sports hook and social relevance could help it gain a foothold via international fest play and perhaps leverage limited theatrical exposure in Francophonic territories.

Young Mitri (Mytri Attal) may be the star player on his Senegalese town’s club squad, but he’s dreaming of bigger things – like playing for the national Lions team. So when a scout turns up recruiting players to try out for the French leagues, he’s thrilled to be selected. Only 15, he can’t possibly afford the recruiter’s fee and begs his grandmother to sell the family’s fruit orchard, his only potential inheritance, to raise the funds for his overseas trip.

Arriving in southern France, Mitri discovers that the recruiter has failed to organize his immigration documents, but it’s not until another agent abandons him on a deserted soccer field that he realizes he’s been duped and his family’s investment lost. Still determined to pursue his dreams of soccer stardom even after the French authorities put him in a group home and enroll him in high school until he reaches legal age, Mitri attempts to crash the practice sessions of a local youth team. Coach and former pro player Serge (Marc Barbe) isn’t having it, however, even after he sees that the kid is superior to most of his regular players, and forces Mitri to go through official channels to register with the team.

Even as he quickly develops into one of the top starters, Mitri constantly gets on Serge’s nerves, bugging him for a chance to try out for the coach’s former pro club. But his old teammates and managers abandoned Serge long ago, leaving him to eke out a living at the nearby Peugeot auto factory and relive his former glory days coaching a youth team while nursing a truckload of toxic anger and resentment. When his suppressed rage inevitably erupts, Serge’s actions not only endanger Mitri’s chances at going pro, but also Serge's few remaining options for redemption.

Although director and co-writer Samuel Collardey’s feature rarely strays far from sports-movie conventions, his incorporation of nonprofessional actors gives the film an edge of unpredictability that's frequently intriguing. Attal turns out to be a great find – not only an impressive soccer player, but also a notably effective debut performer. Vet Barbe exudes wounded pride as the disgraced former pro and youth coach now seeking a new direction in life, but mired in destructive old habits.

The film’s initial scenes set in Senegal are immediately galvanizing and could have benefited from further exploration before the narrative shifts to the oppressive atmosphere of working-class provincial France. Collardey sticks to a straightforward style befitting the realistic tone, although the excellent play action captured on the soccer pitch hints at a superior skill set.

Venue: City of Lights, City of Angeles (COLCOA)

Production company: Lazennec 3

Cast: Marc Barbe, Mytri Attal, Anne Coesens, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Marc Berman, Khady Aidara, Emmanuel Penda

Director: Samuel Collardey

Screenwriters: Catherine Paille, Nadege Trebal, Samuel Collardey

Producer: Gregoire Debailly

Directors of photography: Charles Wilhelem, Samuel Collardey

Editor: Sylvie Lager

Sales: Pyramide International

No rating, 101 minutes