A devoted, if slightly bumbling, group of childhood friends — French-born offspring of immigrants to Marseille — hang out in the sunny beige streets, unsuccessfully cruise for chicks and run petty scams until their renegade behavior catches up with them in “Like a Magnet.” Uneven but affecting debut feature, co-directed by Akhenaton (of the wildly successful Marseille-based rap collective IAM, which composed the scores for “Taxi” and “Taxi 2”) and Kamel Saleh, preemed at Cannes as a special presentation in Intl. Critics Week and opened strongly across France May 31. Launch was supported by an ambitious soundtrack album that employs several U.S. practitioners of early-’70s soul, singing brand-new tunes.
Scrawny and feisty, trim and quasi-suave, or hunky and brawny, the eight pals live in the popular Panier quarter rather than the nondescript projects that have figured in other Marseille-set pics about troubled youth and shiftless losers. They’re not gangsters or hardened criminals — in fact, they’re all pretty nice guys — but their prospects for gainful employment are minimal. So they fob off rocks in sealed cartons as TV sets, steal handbags and pull other illegal stunts that require more nerve than skill.
Although pic never pours it on, the likable protags — “foreign-looking” sons of Italians and North Africans — are sometimes seen as victims of garden-variety racism. Film also portrays the lads’ parents as reasonable and admirable in their modest ambitions, rather than oppressive and objectionable on purely generational grounds.
As the details ring true, including accents and slang, pic has an unpretentious, cumulative power. The musical collaboration between grass-roots entrepreneur Akhenaton and versatile composer Bruno Coulais (“Microcosmos,” “Caravan”) yields a variety of moods and includes a few original songs that sound convincingly like they’ve been revived from American soul and blues charts of the ’60s and ’70s.
Thesps, particularly co-helmer Saleh, create distinct personalities, although Akhenaton is a tad stiff. While never sophisticated, the casual, intimate lensing makes the viewer feel like an accepted guest, be it on a cruising expedition or a run-for-your-life escape from no-nonsense Mafiosi.