Sunday, February 8, 2015

Hélier Cisterne's VANDAL: a smart, sneaky little French film makes its DVD and streaming debut

The story of a troubled teen born of a French mom and an Arab-heritage dad, VANDAL is the work of budding French filmmaker, Hélier Cisterne, and is one of those many small films from abroad that so easily get lost in our current thicket of too-many-movies, too-little-time. This is all the more reason to be grateful to First Run Features (FRF), which is at least giving the film a DVD release. (I'm afraid it would not make many waves, were it to receive a more expensive theatrical opening.)

M. Cisterne, show at left, begins his film with his main character, Chérif, driving around in a stolen car and screaming at the top of his lungs, his face a mirror of frustration that is at last experiencing a kind of release. We cut to a scene in a judge's office, in which we learn that Chérif (played believably by Zinedine Benchenine, shown below, in his screen debut), is a multi-repeat offender, who must now either be sent to reform school or leave his mom's care to go live with an aunt, uncle and cousin in another city, also near where his father lives. A no-brainer for all concerned, the boy is soon ensconced with that other family, the son of whom (very nice job by Emile Berling) looks like a kind of goody-goody nerd type but secretly lives a double life as a member of a gang of graffiti artists.

There a terrific little scene in which young M. Berling (shown below, and son of that fine actor Charles Berling), is asked by Chérif if he has ever been caught. The cousin quietly puts on his glasses, changes his entire demeanor, seemingly from the inside out, and asks with utter surprise, "Pardon me?"

In his new environment, Chérif must deal with his not ungracious but disciplinarian uncle (played by that always interesting actor and filmmaker Jean-Marc Barr, below) and his kindly aunt, Christine (Brigitte Sy, shown in the penultimate photo).

The boy quickly reunites with his dad (Ramzy Bedia, below, left), who soon hooks his son up with a part-time construction job.

While at school, Chérif finds himself growing close to a smart, attractive girl in his class (Chloé Lecerf, below, right), who is wiser by far than this troubled kid.

All of this is brought to a bubble by the graffiti artists, and the fellow they all worship and envy, a guy named Vandal, whose work is everywhere, though the artist himself never seem to get caught.

As often occurs in small European movies, events happen, but nothing proves either defining nor a deal-breaker. Mom (Marina Foïs, above) comes to visit, with Chérif's little brother in tow. Bits and pieces of character are revealed and add to our understanding, while never completing the puzzle.

We leave Vandal at a single, troubling point in our hero's life, just as we entered it at an earlier one. We've met a bunch of interesting characters, all of whom seem more good than bad, more positive than negative, and we hope that Chérif somehow finds his way through the maze of growing up and into some kind of autonomy that works (and is legal).

The movie, in French with English subtitles, runs a short 84 minutes and will be available on DVD -- and probably via a number of streaming sources, too -- this Tuesday, February 10. 

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