One year after sharing the Palme d’Or for her debut, “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” French actress Adele Exarchopoulos returns to Cannes, this time playing a tiny supporting role in a low-profile indie easily overlooked in the festival’s off-the-Croisette ACID sidebar. Still, it’s worth seeking out “Insecure,” which provides a fresh and empathetic glimpse into the personal insecurities of a small-town security guard (Reda Kateb) struggling to improve his station in life. Conceived with an eye toward color-blindness, Marianne Tardieu’s multiethnic directorial debut is a worthy choice for additional fests, if not an especially commercial prospect for export.
Sleepy-eyed Cherif (Kateb) looks out of place in a suit and tie. The live-at-home son of Middle Eastern immigrants, he appears equally uneasy guarding the door of a shopping-mall electronics store, where a group of rowdy teens from his neighborhood heckle him every day on the job. In their eyes, Cherif is a sellout, and they intuitively sense that it doesn’t take much to push his temper over the edge.
But Cherif has a softer side as well, which comes out on the bus ride home, where he affectionately teases a class of kids being chaperoned by a beautiful young woman from his neighborhood (Exarchopoulos). Over the course of a few short scenes, she will come to represent the romantic potential of a life that’s finally starting to go where Cherif hopes. The security job — which also involves night-watch duties at the store’s receiving center — is just a temporary gig while he prepares to take his nursing exam for the fourth time.
A part like this is a big step up for character actor Kateb, best known to American auds as the prisoner seen hanging by his wrists in the opening scene of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Here, acting among a diverse, mostly non-pro cast, he has the tricky task of making himself seem both relatable and somewhat threatening, enough so that Exarchopoulos’ character might have second thoughts about whether she’s comfortable around his temper. The actress brings more of that stunning girl-next-door quality auds saw in “Blue,” though the trailers are overselling her involvement: She only appears in a handful of scenes.
Though based in Brittany, “Insecure” (whose French title, “Qui vive,” roughly translates to “on the lookout,” a play on words well suited to a security guard seeking greater opportunities) could take place in nearly any American suburb, so universal are the sentiments it depicts. These days, the Horatio Alger myth — whereby hard work and dedication yield the American Dream — appears to be more applicable to immigrant communities abroad than it is in the country that spawned it. Still, while morally inclined, this film isn’t meant to be so blindly optimistic. It depicts the challenges facing someone determined to earn his way honestly when nearly all his peers are chasing shortcuts, and the consequences of a lapse in judgment that threatens to undermine all his progress.
In terms of approach, Tardieu follows the example of other European social-realist filmmakers, observing her subject intimately yet objectively, without letting her loose handheld style distract from the telling. The helmer doesn’t necessarily seem to have decided where the story will end up in advance, making the journey an interesting one to follow, even if the incidents themselves — which include a non-sensationalized robbery and a later police re-creation of the same crime — seem not so far removed from most people’s experience. But that makes it all the more relatable, which is essentially the point: to recognize the overlooked potential in people we interact with every day.