If Larry Clark went to the French island of Corsica and made a film, it might look an awful lot like “Les Apaches.” Full of hormones, half-naked pool parties and rash teenage decisions, this sexy adolescent thriller masks much darker themes than its sunburnt style might suggest, as director Thierry de Peretti contrasts the seemingly senseless murder of a local teen by a group of his friends with the tourist-friendly party vibe preceding the tragedy. While the true-crime element feels a bit too familiar for export, the film’s depiction of social friction between the classes should attract interest from the festival scene.

If this were a commercial French film, the script might invent a romantic pretext on which to send two or more attractive white stars to the island paradise. Instead, de Peretti focuses on the characters one typically doesn’t see in such pics, except perhaps on the margins: a mix of Moroccan, Arab and gypsy teens who live on the side of town where the tourists never venture. Whereas their parents keep their heads down and try to create better opportunities for the next generation, these kids openly resent the outsiders, jumping at the suggestion by Aziz (Aziz El Hadachi) to throw a party at the vacant house where his father works.

What begins as some drunken late-night swimming inevitably gets out of hand when Aziz’s friends start stealing things — tomfoolery that the home’s owners find easy enough to solve when they arrive in town, leaning on some local thugs to trace the break-in back to Aziz’s father. Earning sympathy for doing the difficult but decent thing, Aziz comes clean and returns the loot (mostly just DVDs and junk they wouldn’t miss anyway), but he doesn’t realize that his friends also stole a valuable hunting rifle; nor does it occur to him that they’d rather bump him off than confess their involvement.

Just as tragic as Aziz’s fate, which the film depicts in unflinchingly straightforward fashion, is the sense that their leader, the nihilistic Francois-Jo (Francois-Joseph Cullioli), is so desperate for a taste of the good life that he would resort to such cruel behavior. The break-in is but a minor inconvenience for the owners, practically forgotten as soon as their kids start to settle in to the summer home, and yet, it completely upsets the lives of the little gang responsible. In addition to being Paris police slang for young hoodlums, the pic’s title reveals an inherent racism in the culture, where exotic troublemakers are perceived as a threat to the dominant white culture.

One of the more interesting aspects of de Peretti’s approach involves the decision to alter the characters according to the actors playing them, going so far as to use the talented young newcomers’ real names onscreen. Like Larry Clark’s films, “Les Apaches” feels clued in to the generation depicted, offering a seemingly authentic portrait of how teens in this situation would behave — even as their actions, as scripted, don’t quite add up. Some critical detail seems to be missing in the motive behind the murder itself: reason to think Aziz might rat on his friends, perhaps, or a bullying dynamic that gets overlooked here.

In the end, no satisfying explanation awaits. The film proves more unsettling without a moralistic bow to tie things up, and yet, de Peretti could hardly be considered ambivalent to the material, carefully selecting moments that accentuate the underlying class conflict, including a final scene that underscores the locals’ feelings of envy and outsider-ness. Among his collaborators, d.p. Helene Louvart contributes most to the film’s personality, balancing the tension between the troubling behavior and the beautiful environments.

Cannes Film Review: ‘Les Apaches’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight), May 22, 2013. Running time: 81 MIN.

  • Production: (France) A Pyramide Films release of a Ferris & Brockman presentation and production. (International sales: Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Produced by Igor Alexis Wojtowicz. Co-producer, Stanley White.
  • Crew: Directed by Thierry de Peretti. Screenplay, de Peretti, B. Baroche. Camera (color), Helene Louvart; editor, Pauline Dairou; music, Cheveu; production designer, David Bersanetti; costume designer, Mati Diop; sound, Armelle Mahe; sound editors, Vincent Pateau, Margot Testemale; assistant director, Akrame El Meziane; casting, Yannick Casanova.
  • With: Francois-Joseph Cullioli, Aziz El Hadachi, Hamza Mezziani, Joseph Ebrard, Maryne Cayon, Andrea Brusque, Henri-Noel Tabary, Danielle Arbid, Michel Ferracci.