Offering biting commentary on ethics in filmmaking, “The Worst Ones” is a strong rebuke toward exploitation in filmmaking and leaves viewers questioning the film’s own complicit nature in these systems.

“The Worst Ones” is the latest film from French directing duo Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret. The film follows Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh) a film director seeking to capture the gritty realities of the Boulogne-sur-Mer suburb in northern France. There he turns to the local Cité Pablo Picasso housing projects to select four nonprofessional actors to star in his film.

Gabriel ends up picking Ryan (Timéo Mahaut), a young boy suffering from attention-deficit disorder; Maylis (Mélina Vanderplancke), a withdrawn but supremely perceptive young girl; Jessy (Loïc Pech), an outwardly egotistical but inwardly secretive teenage boy; and Lily (Mallory Wanecque), a teenage girl and so-called local slut, still reeling from her younger brother’s untimely death from cancer. The local community cannot help but wonder why the director picked “the worst ones” to feature. 

The strongest aspect of “The Worst Ones” is the two central characters of Lily and Gabriel. Lily’s broken love life and desperate struggles for affection make her an exceptionally sympathetic lead. It is shocking to learn that this is Wanecque’s first film role because of just how naturally she carries her scenes. While the other children are important to the film’s progression, Wanecque towers above the rest in terms of development and the prowess displayed by the actors portraying them. 

On the other hand, Gabriel is an all-around strange person, and the audience is invited to thoroughly interrogate his motives for casting these uniquely vulnerable children in his film. One of the film’s best scenes portrays Gabriel directing a sex scene between Jessy and Lily’s characters. All throughout, he gives repeated pieces of clumsy direction to the pair, exacerbating the uncomfortable tension of the moment.

Perhaps the most intriguing realization over the course of “The Worst Ones” is that the movie Gabriel is making sucks. Maylis is quick to point out that the film-within-a-film is little more than pretentious drivel and the children themselves are sympathetic vessels to mask that hollowness. What on the surface is a portrait of a tapestry of characters is actually a commentary on exploitation in the film industry. The viewer is forced to consider the ethics of this authentic, if exploitative, portrayal of poverty in both the film-within-a-film and the film itself. 

While “The Worst Ones” certainly escapes some criticism of exploitation for admonishing the questionable aspirations of Gabriel, it still remains somewhat complicit in the systems it criticizes. Intelligently, the movie leaves the viewer with the question of whether the film is moral, rather than offering up a heavy handed answer. 

Even though the moral predicament at the center of “The Worst Ones” is intriguing, the story suffers as a result. Once the plot starts to get moving, the viewer is left dryly waiting for the next absurd scene to pop up, while having the same basic information about the characters repeated to them ad nauseam.

The sprawling network of central characters only feels so well developed by the end of “The Worst Ones.” While Lily feels incredibly complete as a character, others like Maylis and Jessy ring empty. Ryan feels a lot closer to being properly developed, but the limitations of Mahaut as an actor hold this back.

Overall, “The Worst Ones” offers the viewer interesting questions about the ethics of filmmaking and leaves those answers open to interpretation in an interesting way. While the story and characters are dragged down for this message, the commitment to making an uncomfortable yet insightful film is admirable, and I would give it a 6/10.

I would recommend “The Worst Ones” to people who are fans of being uncomfortable and taken out of their element by a film. The sex scene is just one of many thoroughly awkward experiences throughout this film, the best of which I have chosen not to spoil and push the envelope in some hilarious ways.