A colorful jukebox musical of Francophone songs, a dramatic Parisian love story across ethnic and class divides and a sociopolitical message movie are all shoehorned into a vibrant if never quite coherent package in “Leila.” Sophomore helmer Audrey Estrougo (“Ain’t Scared”) tries to have her cake and eat it, wrapping a critique of the French government’s tough stance on immigration in contempo “West Side Story” trappings, but up-and-coming leads Leila Bekhti and Benjamin Siksou compensate for the wobbly tonal shifts with impressive musical skills and tons of charisma. Some home biz and fest action are assured.
Though the English title suggests that pretty Arab girl Leila (Leila Bekhti) is the protag, the original French title, which translates as “You, Me, the Others,” clearly signals that this is an ensemble piece. Opening montage reinforces this idea, as Leila and her working-class immigrant family are preparing breakfast while, in split-screen, a swankily dressed upper-class couple, Gabriel (Siksou) and Alexandra (Cecile Cassel), are seen leaving a casino at dawn.
Their stories collide when Gabriel, alone in his car and still inebriated, hits Leila’s kid brother, Agib (Emir Seghir). In the hospital waiting room, Gabriel is sufficiently impressed with the little boy’s lioness of a sister to start singing Michel Delpech’s flirtatious ’70s ditty “Pour un flirt.”
Though initially Leila isn’t interested in the guy who caused Agib harm, her pushy girlfriends, who congregate at the local hairdresser’s — think “Steel Magnolias,” except everyone’s of color and in the country illegally — insist she gives the rich kid with the awesome convertible a try. No points for guessing in which direction this is headed, or for suggesting that more well-known French songs are in store.
Pic, written by the helmer with Juliette Sales and Aline Mehouel, starts off as a formulaic but sincere opposites-attract romance that develops into a triangle after it’s revealed that Gabriel and Alexandra are just days away from tying the knot. A darker undercurrent breaks the surface when Tina (Marie-Sohna Conde), an illegal immigrant and beautician who’s something of a surrogate mother to Leila, is arrested and will be deported.
It’s after Tina is locked up that the two opposing forces of the film really start to butt heads, as the exuberance of true love is hardly the right tone, and the ebullient disciplines of song and dance are hardly the right method, to explore the finer details of immigration law. Estrougo’s song-and-dance setpieces often advance only the romance, while the more complex sociopolitical issues seem to exist only in the nonmusical interludes. Thankfully, the luminous Bekhti (“All That Glitters”) and affable actor-singer Siksou (“Largo Winch”), both doing their own singing, are aces, ensuring auds will root for them and their cause, however broadly sketched.
Song choices lean heavily on the older chanson repertoire, and part of the local appeal will be the use of familiar songs in new situations. Approach is reminiscent of “Moulin Rouge,” which is also directly cited in a dance on the Parisian rooftops, set to Mathieu Chadid’s “La bonne etoile.” Choreography by Gladys Gambie is especially strong in the bigger numbers, occasionally recalling the work of “West Side Story’s” Jerome Robbins but also incorporating contempo styles such hip-hop.
Pic was mostly shot on a realistic-looking Parisian street set, with d.p. Guillaume Schiffman switching between handheld camerawork for a realistic edge and more expressionist colored lighting in the nighttime scenes. Costume design reps the strongest below-the-line contribution, not only adding bright splashes of color but also visually suggesting Leila and Gabriel’s growing intimacy.