CANNES – An insider’s portrait of life on the streets in the multi-racial housing projects on the northern fringes of Paris, Brooklyn belongs to that rare cinematic subgenre: the French hip-hop drama. The writer-director Pascal Tessaud grew up in this tough neighborhood and previously made music videos for local rap groups. His debut feature delivers plenty of energy and some decent performances, but feels too slight and domestic to travel far.
Further festivals, especially those with music sidebars, would be a good platform for Brooklyn. Francophone territories and TV stations are also obvious target markets. But while the universal appeal of hip-hop may boost the film’s chances overseas, it lacks the dramatic punch or originality to make a big splash.
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Brooklyn premiered in the independent ACID sidebar in Cannes last week, and feels like a grittier cousin of Celine Sciamma’s music-heavy girl-gang drama Girlhood, which screened to great acclaim in the Directors’ Fortnight section. Tessaud’s film is a much less polished than Sciamma’s, but also more authentic. His cast is mostly composed of real-life rappers and amateur actors from the urban projects where it was shot on location, guerrilla-style. All play thinly disguised versions of themselves, speaking dialogue that was largely improvised in drama workshops before shooting began. Tessaud cites John Cassavetes as a key influence on his loose, jazzy, naturalistic methods.
KT Gorique, an award-winning freestyle rapper from Switzerland, gives a charmingly natural performance as the heroine Coralie, a.k.a. aspiring MC Brooklyn. Fleeing her family and arriving in the strife-torn Parisian banlieue of Saint-Denis, Coralie finds a job as a cook in a neighborhood community organization, where her rapping skills earn the attention of social worker Yazid, played by Jalil Naciri. With a track record that includes Steven Spielberg’s Munich, the Liam Neeson thriller Taken and the hit French TV crime series P.J., the French-Moroccan Naciri is one of very few professionals in a large ensemble cast.
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Yazid is the film’s moral center. He plays a protective uncle role to these underclass kids, but he also lays down the law when they defy his rules. A community organizer and aspiring music producer, it is Yazid who introduces Brooklyn to his regular poetry-slam events, where she is soon on stage trading confrontational rhymes with local rapper hero Issa, played by Rafal Uchiwa. Romantic and sexual sparks follow as Issa charms the new girl with his unorthodox seduction questionnaire: “Jay Z or Nas? Tupac or Biggie…?”
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The strengths of Brooklyn lie chiefly in its musical performances, particularly when Gorique and Uchiwa are on stage with just two turntables and a microphone. The soundtrack, mixing hip-hop beats with jazz, is also excellent. But these superior elements cannot compensate for the flimsy narrative, a clichéd mix of boy-meets-girl and heavy-handed social commentary.
A subplot about a female community worker having sex with Issa before trading accusations of “social racism” with Yazid proves frustratingly brief, hinting at darker subject matter beneath the surface. That storyline might have led us into a more complex film about race, class and gender politics. But Tessaud is clearly focused on telling a straightforward, uplifting tale of girls and boys in the ‘hood. Brooklyn is ultimately all about keeping it real, even if that means a fairly predictable version of reality where talented kids triumph over tough circumstances.