Refreshing as a river dip on a hot day, but also mildly melancholic, as though perhaps it is the last swim of the summer, Guillaume Brac’s wise, witty “À l’abordage” is an optimistic portrait of gentle disappointment, the kind a youthful generation has to experience before growing up a little bit. It’s also a delightful showcase for the talents of its diverse, fresh-faced cast, whose own stories and experiences contributed to Brac and co-screenwriter Catherine Paillé’s loose-limbed narrative. That improvisational approach lends “À l’abordage” an amiably meandering rhythm while still bringing its breezy journey to a close with everyone in a subtly but profoundly different place to where they started.
The title, which translates somewhere between “All aboard!” and “Attack!”, was supposedly the battle-cry of French pirates when they drew up alongside an enemy ship. Not that there’s any bloodthirstiness here; instead the words conjure up a kids’ game of make-believe, as though these attractive, benignly muddled twentysomethings are play-acting their bravado as surely as kids sporting plastic eyepatches waving cardboard cutlasses around.
Felix (Éric Nantchouang) is a black Parisian student working his way through college as a carer for the elderly. In the film’s vibrant opening (Alan Guichaoua’s airy, exuberant cinematography is a pleasure throughout), he saunters down to an open-air dance party beside the Seine where he meets pretty, white Alma (Asma Messaoudene) with whom he spends a blissful night canoodling in a nearby park. She rushes off to catch her train in the morning, but Felix hatches a plan to go visit her, uninvited, in the picturesque South of France village where she is vacationing with her family.
He enlists a first mate, his best friend Chérif (a lovely, soft and thoughtful turn from Salif Cissé) who, despite misgivings, reluctantly dunks out of his part time supermarket job to join Felix for the trip. Low on cash (they’re traveling with borrowed tents and camping gear) they have signed up for a rideshare — much to the annoyance of their driver, gawky mama’s boy Édouard (Édouard Sulpice), who was expecting two girls. This motley crew of three bicker the whole way there — with the outgoing Felix picking on Édouard’s neuroses while Chérif acts as mediator — whereupon the car breaks down, stranding Édouard with the two friends at a tatty campsite on the outskirts of Alma’s town.
Needless to say, Alma — whom we discover to be a bit of a brat — interprets Felix’s grand romantic gesture as creepy, which is quite the blow to his braggadocio. Meanwhile at the campsite, Chérif gets close to attractive young mother Helena (Ana Blagojevic), while Édouard, who literally sleeps wrapped in the curtains he was due to deliver to his overbearing mother, starts to snip through the apron strings a little, as he bonds with the other two despite himself.
Like Brac’s previous fiction features (he also works in documentary), “À l’abordage” is loosely in the Rohmerian relationship comedy-drama tradition, only here, it’s updated for the 21st century and aged-down to reflect the vanguard of France’s Generation Z. Like Rohmer, Brac displays genuine fondness for his characters, even when they’re being less than likable, but like Rohmer, he doesn’t let them entirely off the hook. There is some kind-hearted satire here, showing Brac’s keen, wry eye for the inherent silliness of the masculine one-upmanship that underpins this endearingly un-macho trio.
There are amusing episodes of thwarted rivalry when Felix goes canyoning with Alma’s friends, or when he bike-races cycling enthusiast Édouard to the top of a hill. And there are truthful little nuggets of wisdom in the arguments Felix has with Chérif, like when he accuses him of crushing on Helena as part of an ongoing pattern of befriending unavailable women to spare himself potential rejection. So although the film is told from a male point of view, and its female characters are secondary, the unreconstructed, ’90s teen sex comedy vibe of the initial set-up soon gives way to a much more honest, modest, modern vision of cherchez la femme.
But then the film wears all its issues and opinions lightly, letting its characters primarily be who they are, not what they represent. This is especially novel in terms of a racial aspect that is neither willfully ignored nor forcibly foregrounded. Chérif and Felix’s blackness does not occasion any outright racism, but their sheer incongruity in the otherwise blindingly white environs of a French countryside vacation spot is unmistakable. It adds a plangent, contemporary note to a classic story that is all about trying to work where you are welcome and where you can belong, and discovering, with some bemusement, that the treasure was aboard your own ship all along.