A light feminist streak runs through “The Squale,” Fabrice Genestal’s visually striking, emotionally powerful feature debut, which posits at its center a rebellious adolescent growing up in the margins of French society but determined to improve her lot. Two extremely appealing performances, by Esse Lawson, as the girl, and Tony Mpoudja, as her slightly older, treacherous lover, make this violent youth film accessible to audiences beyond the festival circuit. Showing an impressive command of film’s technical and narrative properties, Genestal is a talent to watch.
Desiree (Lawson), a 16-year-old black girl, is a newcomer in a marginal neighborhood dominated by fear; crime threatens to erupt whenever its hoodlums argue. She asserts herself by claiming to be the daughter of Souleimane, an underground hero and a gang member who has mysteriously disappeared.
Quickly becoming the leader of the ‘hood girls, Desiree falls for the handsome Toussaint (Mpoudja), a sensitive but volatile youth. She believes they are two of a kind — sort of the black Bonnie and Clyde — with a better future ahead of them. Together they dream of escaping their dreary circumstances, but when Toussaint betrays her with another girl, the humiliated Desiree decides to take action.
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Helmer Genestal creates tension in almost every scene, and, though there’s too much family melodrama, he comes up with a surprisingly effective and credible finale.