Eastern Boys (2013) is a French film that focuses on the interactions between one man and a gang of young migrants from Eastern Europe. The film manages to function as a couple of different stories in one, but impressively coheres them into a singular vision.
Eastern Boys opens with an extended, dialogue free verite style look at a bustling train station from a birds eye view. Generally just taking in the ant-like people going about their day and occasionally focusing in a little closer on the gang of teens milling about. This opening suggests that the audience is in for an anti-narrative piece of cinema, almost a portrait of a city type film. But director Robin Campillo defies expectations not just on that, but a number of times through the film as he brings narrative more and more to the fore. Next after the train station sequence is an eerie, almost hallucinogenic party/very slow robbery. Both of these first two chapters (and they are listed as chapters with titles on screen) are very much focused on mood. The third one plays out as a relationship drama or really it is two people having one relationship and then shifting and having another. That makes little sense really, but to say more would give away too much of the film. But what I can say is that at the core of the film is a relationship much more complex in its construction and presentation than is the norm on film. The final chapter is all about narrative, tying up the plot and the journeys of the characters that Campillo has gradually built up over the course of the first three. It is a prominent differential from the early mood and tonal filmmaking, to this last section that plays out almost as an action/thriller hybrid.
The characters and performances evolve over time, just as the approach of the film itself does. Through the first two chapters, many of the actors are just conveying a presence, rather than a character as such. They are ciphers such as the menacing presence of a gang leader, the middle aged homosexual man who lives alone and the young street urchin. Later on, characters are brought more to the forefront and we get to know the nature of each of them, their kindness, their lusts and it sounds cliché (but it is not in the film) their hopes and dreams. It must be difficult to deliver this kind of performance. Initially almost non-descript and then later deeply involved in a particular character. But the three male leads Olivier Rabourdin, Kirill Emelyanov and Daniil Vorobyev all do it exceedingly well. Without the skill of those three actors, then the early parts of the film could have so easily been bland and uninvolving, whilst their eventual journeys could have been twee. But there is an earthy, true to life feel about all of the performances. Furthermore, the three of them manage to play with and engage with the themes of the place of homosexuality in modern day France and the plight of displaced peoples in a society such as that one. Testament to the skill of writer-director Campillo is that these themes are a compliment to the enjoyment of the film, rather than serving to overwhelm it.
Verdict: Eastern Boys gradually evolves and morphs over the course of the four chapters, from mood focused to totally story focused. Borne out of three great performances, there is a realism to the film and especially the way the various relationships unfold that is rarely delivered like this onscreen. Pint of Kilkenny