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  Gagarine Save The Block
Year: 2020
Director: Fanny Liatard, Jeremy Trouilh
Stars: Alseni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Finnegan Oldfield, Farida Rahouadj, Denis Lavant, Cesar 'Alex' Ciurar, Rayane Hajmessaoud, Hassan Baaziz, Salim Balthazard, Fanny Liatard, Jeremy Trouilh
Genre: Drama, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Youri (Alseni Bathily) is a sixteen-year-old denizen of the Cite Gagarine, a housing block built in the early nineteen-sixties in tribute to the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, who he is named after. He has taken this to heart, and become fascinated with space exploration and the thrill by association that one of the most famous men in history actually visited the block on a publicity tour and gave it his blessing. However, there's a problem because the block has seen better days and is now closer to a slum than a brave new world of residential living, meaning the council want to demolish it and rehouse the tenants in different places across the rest of Paris.

As his mother loses interest in him, Youri knows he must keep the block alive at all costs... Cite Gagarine was demolished in 2019, leaving the directors here, Fanny Liatard and Jeremy Trouilh, not long to update their short film based on the apartment complex as a proper feature. But they made it, and the results enchanted many who were expecting yet another grim-faced, socially aware expose of the troubles of the French urban underclass, yet instead were offered a sweetnatured piece that leaned heavily on the charms of its younger cast members and their youthful hope that things can improve for themselves.

Bathily carried the story, and Lyna Khoudri offered excellent support as the Roma girl Diana who lives on the estate and grows intrigued by this boy who is not about to allow the world immediately around him go drastically downhill, he is going to do something about it, something positive and proactive. You cannot help but admire Youri as he goes about his self-appointed chores, fixing the electrics or painting the grafitti-daubed walls and blithely ignoring that yesterday's symbol of hope for Parisians is now a symbol of decay and neglect in the city when he believes with all his heart that one man - himself - can make a difference.

Just as the real Gagarin united the world in wonder, for a few days at least, Youri is convinced his good intentions will amount to a rallying call for his fellow residents, and a wake-up call for the council who will surely see the improvements he has made and cancel the demolition plans. There is a sense the boy is in denial, and he could be a fantasist who nobody can get through to unless they absolutely agree with him, but he is also a dreamer, and cinema loves those guys and girls who hold onto their biggest dreams. If Gagarine was closer to Amelie than La Haine, that was no bad thing, though some may feel cheated when what appeared to be a gritty examination of the poor in France transformed into something that was frankly rather precious.

But that could be charming as well, and when, for instance, Youri and Diana share a day together where their romance blossoms from a shy collection of awkward moves to a genuine connection, it is really quite touching: we are not used to seeing council estates as the setting for a delicate love story, not in France nor anywhere else. It also makes it a little heartbreaking when they return to the "real world" that Diana opts to head off with her family and leave the the smitten Youri in the lurch, not knowing if he will ever see her again. This spurs him to further flights of fancy where he sets about making the block into his own personal spaceship, with himself as its Captain; yes, it's ridiculous, but by the latter stages you're either happily going along with it or rolling your eyes at how artificial it is now. Yet the chances are you will be willing Youri on, after all this is all he has in life, and if the film doesn't quite reach transcendence, it has a damn good try at getting there. Oh, and French cult legend Denis Lavant is in this too. Bien sur!

[Click here to watch on MUBI.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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