Hot-button politics and child’s fantasy collide in writer-director Romain Goupil’s contempo drama “Hands Up.” In this playful but troubling tale about a gang of fifth graders trying to prevent the deportation of their Chechen classmate, France’s controversial treatment of illegal immigrants is filtered through the imaginative minds of kids who take on the system as if they’re playing one big game they can’t afford to lose. Filmed from the viewpoint of a terrific cast of tykes, pic is nonetheless more thoughtful than sentimental, and could tease arthouse distribs following its Cannes special screening and June 9 local release.
Known primarily in France for his 1982 Camera d’Or winner “To Die at 30,” actor-helmer Goupil has since made a handful of politically charged and stylistically challenging works, including the 2002 faux docu “Purely Coincidental.”
Though they’re fictionalized and explained by a voiceover looking back from the future, the events in “Hands Up” were inspired by recent incidents resulting from President Sarkozy’s strict immigration policy, which has set an annual deportation quota of 25,000 persons and occasionally targets children registered in public schools.
One such victim is 10-year old Milana (Linda Doudaeva), a studious but mischievous Chechen who’s fully integrated into the French system, though she and her mother (Malika Doudaeva) are both “sans papiers” (undocumented immigrants). When the police go after another family in her building, it’s decided that Malina will be sheltered by classmate and puppy-love interest Blaise (Jules Ritmanic), whose younger sis (Louna Klanit) and endearing mom (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) accept her with open arms.
As the adult world of news reports, parental conflicts and debates remains largely in the background, the film focuses instead on how the kids choose to deal with the situation. Mostly, they just act like kids, laughing, playing and finding various ingenious ways — including clandestine ring tones and an underground hideout in their own school building — to outsmart the bad guys, as if this were “The Goonies” filmed by Francois Truffaut.
By juxtaposing the games of Malina and her friends with the troubling real events, Goupil seems to be condemning the absurdity of a system that treats innocent children like criminals — a theme echoed by the title, which can be shouted by police officers or boys playing cops and robbers. Though such an approach could be seen as the easy way out of a complicated issue, there’s a simple, cruel truth to be found in this sociopolitical allegory, and Goupil brings it out without constantly shoving it in our faces.
Perfs by newcomers Doudaeva and Ritmanic are remarkably straight-faced and moving, and overall the tykes fare better than their elders, who are sometimes a few lines away from hamming it up.
HD lensing by Irina Lubtchansky employs a soft color palette and frames things primarily from the kids’ perspectives, lending the action a warm, fairy-tale flavor.