Although immigrant stories abound in French cinema, Cyprien Vial’s impressive debut, “Young Tiger,” about an illegal Punjabi teen in France, ranks as something of an anomaly in that it deals with the nation’s seldom-seen Indian Sikh community. Closer in tone to the Dardennes’ “La Promesse” or Ken Loach’s “It’s a Free World … ” than to its Gallic brethren, the drama arises not from cultural alienation, but from mutually exclusive loyalties and conflicted moral imperatives. Vial’s coming-of-ager builds seamlessly as emotional stages of the hero’s roller-coaster trajectory play out in closeup; although well received at festivals, it seems a long shot to claw its way into arthouse release Stateside.
Scared, confused and locked in a basement with other illegal immigrants, 15-year-old Many (newcomer Harmandeep Palminder) expects to begin working immediately so he can send money back to his parents, who have gone into debt to smuggle him into France. But his smuggler, Kamal (Vikram Sharma), has no intention of risking his construction business by hiring a visibly underage clandestine worker, and instead rather brutally dumps him on the state — which, according to French law, must enroll him in school and find him a foster home.
Cut to two years later and a very different, fully integrated Many tooling along on his motorcycle — an exemplary student, helpful foster child, practicing Sikh, and loving boyfriend to African classmate Elisabeth (Elisabeth Lando). Vial paints a glowing picture of a French multiethnic school on Paris’ outskirts, down to the supportive teachers, friendly pupils and general encouragement of diverse ethnicities and outlooks.
This benign openness contrasts with the Sikh youths Many encounters at the temple, most of whom have been smuggled in exclusively to earn money, by whatever means necessary, in much the same spirit that Many’s parents sent him to France (and whose phone calls still reflect disappointed bafflement that he hasn’t done so). But education has given Many quite different aspirations than merely making money to send home and, for a while, it seems the two goals may not be mutually exclusive.
When Many turns 17, he adds another sterling, albeit illegal, accomplishment to his resume: He persuades Kamal to give him a job and quickly proves his worth, scheduling construction gigs, dealing with workers and clients and becoming Kamal’s right-hand man. Successfully balancing various obligations, Many grows in stature and confidence.
But when Kamal insists he participate in his smuggling operation, maintaining young countrymen in the same fear and confusion that characterized Many’s early days in France, he begins to vacillate. Caught between the conflicting demands of his parents, Kamal, his school, his girlfriend, his foster parents and the government, his juggling act falls apart, and everywhere he turns he’s betrayed by someone who earned his trust.
D.p. Pierre Cottereau fixes his fluid camera squarely on Many as the emotive center of every shot, whether quietly contemplating him in closeup or smoothly capturing him in motion. Vial and star Palminder sustain an equilibrium in the character’s interactions with those around him, a give-and-take that constitutes total integration of the character within his surroundings — a visual dynamic that changes pointedly as pressures mount and Many’s relationships and his own sense of self undergo a radical shift.