The harsh, dead-end camaraderie among teens and young adults in a racially diverse low-income housing project outside Paris is painted with knowing strokes in “Ain’t Scared.” Twenty-three-year-old scripter-helmer Audrey Estrougo twice depicts the events of one day: first from the p.o.v. of male protags, and then from that of their female counterparts. Rainbow tribe of young thesps convinces in this incident-heavy yet open-ended slice of life. Debut pic garnered much ink upon Sept. 26 local release and pegs helmer as a talent to watch.
Residents are human pressure cookers, as any hint of romance or flicker of weakness is fair game for teasing and worse. International critics who continually make knee-jerk reference to “unrest in the Paris suburbs” could learn a few things here about the intense subculture of adolescents raised in the projects.
Six characters — three men and three women — rep the gamut of gambits and poses, with males trapped by macho attitudes and females obliged to reject their own femininity if they value their personal safety.
Black Adonis Jo (Terry Nimajimbe) will be leaving to train with a prestigious soccer team. His white g.f. Julie (Emilie de Preissac) lives with her zoned-out drunkard father and endures taunts and threats from her tough female contemporaries.
Likeable small-time hood Yannick (Paco Boublard), who’s white, is nuts about mixed-race Melissa (Djena Tsimba), who won’t give him the time of day. Mouss (Oumar Diaw), who’s black, is hoping to score with Daphne (Salome Stevenin), who’s white. Mouss devotes hours to practicing his come-ons in front of the mirror, and Daphne can’t decide whether to give in or not.
Fatimata (Eye Haidara), a dark-skinned young woman who wears an incongruous blonde wig, is in love with Jo and jealous of Julie.
All this might seem soap opera-ish were it not for the passions of youth and the high-stakes behavioral codes at play. There are no guns or knives in sight, yet menace is as prevalent as oxygen.
The 24-hour timeframe intensifies the action and the repetition of incidents — lensed from different mental and physical angles, in keeping with whichever batch of characters is interpreting the events — keep things interesting.
Ornery, combative denizens speak a slangy suburban variation of French (“Shut up when you talk, you make my ears hurt”), and varying degrees of physical violence also seem fraught with meaning. Bluster and hostility, rivalry, jealousy and envy set the tone for most interactions; when friends are teasing and joshing, they come across as boisterously inventive or flat-out obnoxious, depending on one’s threshold for verbal tics, boastful language and codified gestures.
Given the cramped quarters, thin walls and limited recreational space, everybody knows everybody else’s business. Subterfuges for getting around protective siblings or a vigilant parent offer comic relief.
Interracial dynamics favor black males courting white females, which makes things rough for any black girl who might fancy a black boy. Girls are obliged to be hard as nails, even if they’d rather be giggling and doing their nails.
If pic has a message, it’s that cramped projects are a poor setting for self-actualization. Strategic alliances aren’t the same thing as friendship, and deadly rivals may have more in common, in the end, than alleged friends.