Adolescent passion and theatrical ambitions become entwined in "L'esquive," an engaging ensembler set amid a Paris housing project that's brought to life by an impressive young cast. Despite its no-name players, a low-stakes story, an untranslated title (French slang for "dodging") and DV origins, pic created buzz at its Berlin fest screenings and should get its passport ready to travel. It's already done respectable B.O. on home turf.

Adolescent passion and theatrical ambitions become entwined in “L’esquive,” an engaging ensembler set amid a Paris housing project that’s brought to life by an impressive young cast. Despite its no-name players, a low-stakes story, an untranslated title (French slang for “dodging”) and DV origins, pic created buzz at its Berlin fest screenings and should get its passport ready to travel. It’s already done respectable B.O. on home turf.

At the center of the drama is Krimo (Osman Elkharraz), an emotionally shut-down teenager who has an internal life that neither his g.f., Magali (Aurelie Ganito), nor his mother (Meriem Serbah) can access. While largely inarticulate and uncommunicative, Krimo clearly has a creative heart: His room is covered with watercolor illustrations of sailboats that his (unseen) father paints while in prison (on unidentified charges).

Dumped by Magali for his unexplained absences, Krimo trots downstairs and bumps into full-lipped blonde bombshell Lydia (Sara Forestier). She’s haggling over the design and cost of a dress she will wear in a school performance. Smitten, Krimo lends her cash to buy the dress and follows her, at her invitation, to a rehearsal in the park. An hour late and the only cast member dressed for the occasion, Lydia inflames the ire of the quick-tempered Frida (Sabrina Ouazani), who has a subservient role to the diva-ish blonde. While Lydia undermines everyone she comes into contact with, Krimo is sufficiently enamored to bribe leading man Rachid (Rachid Hami) to drop out of the play so he can step into the role. Inexpressive to the max, Krimo still perseveres in the task, despite the whirlwind of gossip and emotional debris that ensues.

Unlike many pics that flirt with legit-centered material, Tunisian-born, French-raised helmer Abdellatif Kechiche makes the most of his camera. Opting for close-ups — and frequently extreme close-ups — helmer thrusts the viewer into an intimate, confronting proximity that frequently obscures the backgrounded Parisien projects.

Though all the teenaged cast is composed of first-timers, ensemble playing is seamless and the roles are inhabited completely. Per Kechiche, film was fully scripted and well-rehearsed, which only underlines the skill of the actors at maintaining authenticity.

Many scenes begin with a bombastic confrontation and then pump up the volume from there, so auds uncomfortable with ranting teenagers would best stay away. However, the energy and verve of the perfs, supplemented by some well-timed laughs, make the high-octane confrontations seem a bona fide part of the characters’ adolescence.

Elkharraz handles the multi-faceted role of Krimo with assurance, switching between amusement, confusion, sadness and intrigue. With what could have been thankless, one-dimensional roles, Forestier and Ouazani create characters of integrity out of the flirtatious Lydia and firebrand Frida. Numerous supports are likewise impressive.

Lensing has a docu look, but artfully meets the challenge set by Kechiche’s prying direction. Other tech credits are also up to the job.

L'esquive

France

Production

A Noe Prods. Intl. presentation, in association with Lola Films. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Jacques Ouaniche. Directed, written by Abdellatif Kechiche.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Lubomir Bakchev; editor, Ghalya Lacroix; costume designer, Maria Beloso-Hall; sound (Dolby Digital), Nicolas Washkowski. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 8, 2004. Running time: 123 MIN.

With

Krimo - Osman Elkharraz Lydia - Sara Forestier Frida - Sabrina Ouazani Nanou - Nanou Benhamou Magali - Aurelie Ganito Krimo's mother - Meriem Serbah Rachid - Rachid Hami
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