Gagarine (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): His little fight against the demolition to come

French film “Gagarine” is a little but interesting drama which alternates between reality and fantasy as observing its plain young hero’s defiant stand against the change to come. Although its overall result is uneven at times, the movie compensates for its several shortcomings via a vivid and realistic sense of life and location, and that is the main reason why a number of big fantasy moments during its last act work with enough interest and poignancy.

The main background of the film is Cité Gagarine, a real-life housing project in Ivry-sur-Seine, on the south of Paris. After they interviewed the residents of Cité Gagarine as requested by the architects working on its planned demolition, directors/co-writers Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh made the 2015 short film of the same name there, and they subsequently returned for making its feature film version before the demolition of Cité Gagarine was eventually started in 2019.

The story is unfolded mainly through the viewpoint of Youri (Alséni Bathily), a 16-year-old boy living in one of the apartments of Cité Gagarine. Because his mother has been absent for some personal reason for a while, Youri usually has to take care of himself alone, and he also spends lots of time on fixing many things in his apartment building. Because of it has lots of problems and damages here and there, Cité Gagarine, which was incidentally named for the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, has been considered for planned demolition, and, needless to say, that is the last thing Youri wants.

Mainly because both his first name comes from that famous Soviet figure, Youri is interested a lot in the space, and we often observe how passionate he is about space exploration. At one point, he gladly prepares a little nice setting for helping his neighbors get a good look at the solar eclipse on the sky, and everyone including him cannot help but amazed as beholding that rare cosmic happening later.

However, their harsh reality comes not long after that. Despite Youri’s diligent efforts in the housing project, those public inspectors conclude that Cité Gagarine should be demolished sooner or later instead of getting some extensive repair. Youri and several other residents naturally protest against that, but there is nothing they can do, and we soon see many of residents leaving the housing project one by one.

Youri is supposed to be picked up by his mother as she finally seems to find a place where she and her son can stay, but then she notifies him on some change in her plan. Youri eventually finds himself staying alone in the housing project without anyone else living around him, and that makes him more determined to stay there regardless of whatever will happen next. When those demolition workers come later, he decides to hide inside a little private place he made for himself, and it looks like he will be all right as long as he evades those demolition workers.

Around that narrative point, the movie has some little fun with how its hero attempts to make a self-sustaining space for himself. As a smart kid who apparently has considerable potential in engineering, Youri develops a number of various devices and equipments via many different stuffs left in the housing project, and his little private place eventually becomes more like the interior of a small spaceship. In fact, he even makes a control panel although he is not making a spaceship at all.

Meanwhile, Youri comes to befriend a teenage girl named Diana (Lyna Khoudri) more, who left the housing project along with her family but then comes across him when both he and she try to steal some stuffs at a nearby construction site at one night. He later takes her to his place, and she is certainly impressed by how he has managed to live there thanks to a bunch of devices developed by him. In addition, they also get themselves associated with a young local marijuana dealer, and the mood becomes merrier than before as these three young people gladly spend more time together in Youri’s private place.

Of course, their good time does not last that long as the demolition of Cité Gagarine is continued as usual, and Youri consequently becomes more desperate than before. During this part, the movie comes to lean more on fantasy, and that feels a bit jarring and baffling at first, but it still holds our attention thanks to Liatard and Trouilh’s good direction. Their cinematographer Victor Seguin provides a series of striking visual moments to be appreciated, and these wonderful moments are further enhanced by the ambient score by Amine Bouhafa and Evgueni and Sacha Galperine.

Liatard and Trouilh also draw engaging performances from their main cast members. Alséni Bathily is solid as the strong human center of the story, and he is also supported well by several other main cast members including Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Finnegan Oldfield, Farida Rahouadj, and Denis Lavant, who steals the show as usual in his brief appearance.

On the whole, “Gagarine” is a modest but charming piece of work to admire, and Liatard and Trouilh make an admirable feature debut here after directing several short films together. Although it is a bit too thin in terms of story and characters, the movie has enough mood and details to engage me at least, and I will gladly pay attention to what Liatard and Trouilh will do next in the future.

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