A fast-paced network narrative that ventures into the ever-newsworthy French suburbs, “Tete de turc” (slang for “scapegoat”) scores solid notes for ambition, but doesn’t quite pull itself together in a satisfying manner. Centered around an explosive incident that leaves one benevolent doctor in a coma and one teenager in hiding, thesp-cum-helmer Pascal Elbe’s (“Father and Sons”) wide-reaching scenario shows Gaul’s immigrant populations at the mercy of roaming gangs and abusive cops, living under conditions more akin to Deadwood than to Dijon. Domestic release by Warner Bros. France should yield respectable coin, with Euro and Francophone bookings a strong possibility.
Unlike other recent banlieue films, which are either pure genre exercises (“District B13,” “The Horde”) or pure arthouse studies (“35 Shots of Rum,” “Games of Love and Chance,”), Elbe’s script situates itself between the two, using a thriller framework to tackle the harsh realities currently plaguing the outskirts of Paris, Lyons and Marseilles.
Based on a 2006 incident in which a Senegalese woman was burned alive on a bus by a band of violent teens, the action here is transplanted to France’s less publicized Turkish and Armenian communities, and presents several characters linked together by an attack that occurs in the pic’s opening minutes.
When physician Simon (Elbe) pays a call to a menacing housing project, his vehicle is ambushed by rock-throwing youths, including high schooler Bora (Samir Makhlouf), who launches a Molotov cocktail but then rushes to save the doc before his car explodes. As Simon rests in a coma, Bora tries to avoid exposing himself to the cops and his hot-blooded seamstress mom (Ronit Elkabetz), but he’s soon beaten down by drug dealers angry that the neighborhood is now filled with roving reporters and police patrols.
Meanwhile, Simon’s detective bro, Atom (Roschdy Zem), is conducting his own jaw-breaking investigation to find the culprit, but he’s unaware that a local nutcase (Simon Abkarian) — who lost his wife due to Simon’s attack — is also plotting revenge. As expected from such a dramatic structure, the various plot points eventually tie together, and somebody doesn’t make it out alive.
There’s a swell of different themes (social injustice, family secrets, coming-of-age struggles) presented here, and pic’s major flaw is its attempt to give them all equal coverage rather than concentrating on the stronger ones. Bora’s tale — marked by lively performances from newcomer Makhlouf and Israeli actress-helmer Elkabetz (“The Seven Days”) — is an engrossing depiction of an immigrant youth’s fight to save his skin and reputation while doing the right thing. But the various subplots involving Simon and Atom only hamper the overall narrative flow.
Washed-out, handheld imagery by Jean-Francois Hensgens (“District 13: Ultimatum”) tends to overexpose the tense atmosphere, depicting the suburbs as a virtual no man’s land where walking to school in broad daylight can be a highly treacherous affair.
French title is a play on both Bora’s ethnic origins and the role he serves in the eyes of his family, friends and the larger community.