Eastern Boys (First Run Features, R)

playback stl photosThe film offered a timely view of two contrasting sides of Paris, one for the privileged and one for those excluded from that privilege.

If you follow international news at all, you’ve probably heard that the world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. While many of these refugees are being sheltered in neighboring countries (in Lebanon, reportedly one in five people is a refugee from Syria), others try to make their way to Europe, where they hope a better life awaits them. News reports sometimes try to differentiate between “deserving” refugees fleeing violence, and others are presumably less deserving because they are migrating for economic reasons. But the truth is that both reasons for emigration may exist for the same person. Trying to sort people into distinct categories seldom works, and that is as true for immigrants as for anyone else.

Eastern Boys, written and directed by Robin Campillo (who was born in Morocco, works in France, and also co-wrote and edited the Cannes-winning 2008 film The Class), takes on two of the biggest dramatic subjects—love and power—in the context of undocumented migrants in Paris. The great strength of this film, however, is that for most of its length it has nothing in common with modern problem films that try to explain everything or force the audience to pick sides. Instead, Campillo does something much more subtle, allowing his story to unfold largely through visuals (dialogue is sparse and, when present, is sometimes heard as voiceover) and with large gaps that he trusts the audience to fill in for themselves (or simply ignore, the way we overlook discontinuities in real life).

Eastern Boys is divided into four sections, each announced with title cards. The sections are not so much unified acts of a play building to a single conclusion as they are almost self-contained pieces offering different views of an overlapping set of characters. The first section introduces the main characters and sets up the contrast between the beautiful Paris (introduced by the imposing façade of the Gare du Nord, the busiest train station in Europe) of the privileged natives and the scruffier, ground-level Paris of the immigrant gang that will play a key role in the story.

A middle-aged Frenchman, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), approaches a member of a gang of immigrant boys, Marek (Krili Emelyanov) and sets up a sexual rendezvous for the following day. Privilege may be on the side of the Frenchman, but the power that comes from knowledge is all on Marek’s side, as he easily convinces Daniel that the rendezvous should take place at Daniel’s apartment. No surprise that it’s a hustle that turns into a home invasion by a gang of immigrants, including Marek, led by their truly frightening ringleader, known only as Boss (Danil Vorobyev). Rather oddly, theft is not on the gang’s mind so much as the chance to enjoy the trappings of wealth and wield power over an adult, suggesting they’re not that different from teenagers all over the world.

Parts two and three deal with the relationship between Daniel and Marek, which develops from a simple one of sex for cash to something much deeper. This part of the film feels like it could stand alone, and offers a strong contrast in tone to the first and fourth sections. In sections two and three, we learn more about Marek, including that Marek is not his real name, although its never entirely clear when he’s telling the truth and when he’s making up a story for effect (what one character says of another is also true of Marek: “he’s anyone you want him to be”). We learn less about Daniel, who is seen more as a sum of unexamined privileges that result in him having nice clothes, a professional job, a spectacular apartment with the latest electronic gadgets, and the ability to host dinner parties attended by other beautiful and privileged people.

The fourth section is well-done and quite interesting, but feels like it belongs in another film. It takes place almost entirely in the hotel (somewhere in the outskirts of Paris, presumably) where French social services is housing the gang, along with other immigrant families (including women and children, who have been largely absent from the male-dominated story so far). This section begins as a thriller and ends as a social problems drama, but the clash of tones doesn’t particularly bother me. After all, the conventions of film construction and the invisible style taught in how-to books and classes are just that: rules for people who want to make conventional films, and Campillo clearly has something more interesting in mind.

The technical elements of Eastern Boys are superb, with the cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie and editing by Campillo and Stephane Leger particularly worthy of mention. The supporting cast is also strong, and they offered a timely view of two contrasting sides of Paris, one for the privileged and one for those excluded from that privilege.

The only extra on the DVD is a gallery of film trailers for other films distributed by First Run Features. | Sarah Boslaugh

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