Choose a Friend” cooks up a convoluted mystery-drama combining themes of loneliness, guilt, blood-brotherly loyalty and betrayal and the quest for a father’s acceptance. French-based Guinean-Vietnamese director Mama Keita attempts to bring some of the brooding mean-streets ambience of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Paris to the city’s tough multiethnic quarters of the 1970s. But the tale falls victim to melodramatic overload, making it unlikely to cross far beyond the festival fringe.
Born on the same day in the same hospital and united by a lifelong bond that grew from their mothers’ friendship, French thug Mario (Patrick Catalifo) and African Mouss (Wasis Diop) were separated by the former’s 20-year prison sentence.
Seen in a flashback to the late ’50s, the duo’s sale of a stolen art piece goes awry and Mouss accidentally kills the prospective purchaser. While the shaken Mouss waits outside, Mario attempts to remove all evidence, but the cops arrive and he takes the rap. The failure of Mouss to even glance at him plants a seed of revenge that has taken root during his stint behind bars.
Fresh out of prison in the late ’70s, Mario sets out to kill his former friend. He is followed around by Thomas (Xavier Thiam), a young black man who claims to be his son by a lover he shared with Mouss. Mario is indifferent to the news and to the kid’s efforts to make him happy.
For its first half, drama remains moody and intriguing, weaving occasional touches of humor into its noirish opening stretch in which Thomas continues to ignore the hostile ambivalence of his father and tries to get to know him, buying him a whore for the night or lifting his gun to keep him out of further trouble with cops. But as the story’s fragments gradually begin to take shape, a somewhat heavy hand takes over.
Ignoring the urging of his lover, Niloufar (Niloufar Abri), to ask Mario’s forgiveness, Mouss takes off to meet his fate. While the inevitable showdown slowly approaches, Keita’s script clutters events with a surfeit of incident: Niloufar encounters a would-be rapist whom she scares off; Thomas’ girlfriend (Camille Japy) competes for his attentions; Mouss bides his time with a hard-drinking artist (Georges Kritchmar).
While the various plot strands have a texture that adds to the film’s strong sense of its seedy metropolitan setting, they dissipate the tone and detract from the central drama, which becomes somewhat clumsily operatic as the characters come together in a crescendo of violence and tragedy.
Thesps generally are on-target, especially Catalifo and newcomer Thiam. Tech elements in the low-budget indie production also are fine, including Marino Zappellini’s score, which combines cool, lazy jazz with African rhythms.