'Sous X': Film Review

SOUS X Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Pan-Europeenne

SOUS X Still - H 2015

An authentic portrait of French thug life that could pack some more punch

Writer, director, actor and ex-convict Jean-Michel Correia makes his feature debut

It's been a decade since riots first broke out in the suburbs north of Paris, bringing issues of unemployment, marginalization and delinquency to the national forefront. Ten years later, and despite a new government, it's clear that things haven't improved much for residents of the banlieue, with many young men still opting for a life of crime.

Such is the context and setting of Sous X, a low-key, almost-documentary-style account of one man's return to the hood after serving an extended jail sentence for armed robbery. Written and directed by real life ex-con Jean-Michel Correia, who also plays the lead role, the film at times recalls the gritty street thrillers of Jacques Audiard, on whose A Prophet Correia served as technical advisor. But it doesn't quite stack up to that movie's grueling leveling of tension, making for an underwhelming though authentic urban portrait that captures a world far from Paris' pristine white monuments.

Fresh out of the slammer and back in the labyrinthine housing projects he grew up in, the mixed-race 30-something Jean-Jacques (Correia) couldn't be happier to be home. Raised by loving white parents after he was given up by his birth mother — the film's title refers to the French legal process of anonymous adoption — the bulky bank robber settles into his old flat, making the rounds of family, neighbors and friends who've never moved out.

Read more Paris Terrorist Attack Leads News Coverage in U.S., Europe

But no sooner has he unpacked his bags then Jean-Jacques jumps back into the game, assisting in the drug-running operation of a childhood pal (Karim Leklou) and reaching out to a fellow jailbird (David Saracino) with major beef in the area. He also gets the hots for a young student (Mariama Gueye) staying in his building, while reconnecting with a bartender (Anissa Allali) looking for a sustained relationship.

Filled with realistic depictions of French gangsta life, as if Correia and his crew were documenting events as they happen — the script, co-written with Gary Pierre-Victor, was inspired by the director's own story — Sous X offers up a raw account of a place where drugs run rampart and dealers rule the roost (cops are only glimpsed once in the movie, and from a very safe distance). The fact that Jean-Jacques hardly considers getting a real job, even if he has a certain talent for drawing, is never questioned by the guys he grew up with, who seem to see no other option. To them, crime is the only answer.

Read more 'My Friend Victoria' ('Mon Amie Victoria'): Film Review

Despite all the guns, drugs and thugs, the Paris suburbs are not quite the wild west, and Sous X also reveals the community spirit that exists in such neighborhoods, with criminals chipping in cash for a summer block party and dancing along with the local kids. Yet, as much as Correia captures a strong sense of place here, he doesn't build up enough suspense to channel the story's various genre elements, resulting in a third act that cranks up the action (including an AK-47 shooting), but never has the intensity it should.

Still, his portrayal of the generous but troubled Jean-Jacques is a touching one, and although the guy does some pretty bad things, you can't help feeling empathy for him. Unlike the hero in Audiard's A Prophet, driven to commit violence in prison by the other inmates, this is a man who's chosen by himself to go off the straight and narrow path. It's less a question of circumstance than one of resourcefulness, if not resignation. C'est la vie.

Production companies: Pan-Europeenne
Cast: Jean-Michel Correia, Karim Leklou, Pierre Douglas, Lisa Livane, Anissa Alalli, Mariama Gueye
Director: Jean-Michel Correia
Screenwriters: Jean-Michel Correia, Gary Pierre-Victor
Producer: Nathalie Gastaldo Godeau
Director of photography: Muriel Cravatte
Production designer: Thierry Golitin
Costume designer: Laurence Benoit
Editor: Jean-Denis Bure
Casting director: Mohamed Belhamar
Sales: Pan-Europeenne

No rating, 100 minutes