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"Petit Freres" kicks off French Film Festival with a bang

Sort of a Parisian "Boyz in the Hood," director Jacques Doillon's "Petite Freres" (aka "Little Brothers") is a gritty, no-nonsense film about a 12-year-old girl who clings to her beloved dog and, after she's stolen, will do anything to get her back.

Talia, played with hard-as-nails toughness by Stephanie Touly, lives in Belleville with her mother and younger step-sister. When her stepfather (Gérald Dantsoff) returns after a year, Talia isn't happy to see the man who fled when the girl's best friend accused him of raping her. She takes her companion, a docile pitbull called Kim and heads off to the Pantin projects to look for her friend Gerald.

She doesn't find him but she runs into a gang of young teens that likes the look of her, but smells money on the dog. Dembo (Dembo Goumane), a friend of Gerald's, give her a place to stay but while she's sleeping Bembo's little brother Mous (Mustapha Goumane) helps the teens lure Kim away.'

They sell her to some older guys in the neighborhood who test Kim out in dogfights with good results early on. Meanwhile, Illies, one of the young gang, begins to fall for Talia, who rebuffs him. Her icy facade begins to crack, however, and now Illies feels guilty and wants to help get Kim back.

But can he do it? And can he steal Talia's heart and woo her with expensive gifts? Can he overcome that fact that she's Jewish and he's a Muslim whose mother would kill him if she saw him kissing a Jewish girl?

"Petit Freres," also written by Doillon, is the kind of hard-edged, life-on-the-streets film we associate with American movies. There's lots of talk of "gats" and some hard French rap underscoring stark scenes of a lonely Talia riding the Metro and walking the unfriendly streets.

There are also scenes of neighborhood cliques rebuffing strangers and each other, kids stealing bikes to fund gun purchases and simmering violence. There are also stories of police brutality.

But, there is a heartbreaking side, as well. Two of the youngest kids play on the escalator at the local Metro station. As they ride up the moving handrail, they dream of a life of luxury; of big cars and lots of money. But their reality looks much different.

And Talia, who is nicknamed Tyson by the boys for her killers' eyes, plays like a child when she's around Dembo's little sisters and seems to have the almost normal life of a 12-year-old ... until she's back out on the street.

Powerfully scripted, starkly shot and masterfully acted by a bunch of kids, "Petit Freres" is the kind of honest filmmaking that makes for moving movies.

"Petit Freres" makes its Milwaukee premiere as part of UWM Union Cinema's French Film Festival. You can see it Fri., Feb. 14 and Sun., Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. Admission is free. Call (414) 229-4070 or 5138 for more information. Other films featured are "Alias Betty," "My Wife is an Actress," "Code Unknown," Girls Can't Swim" and "Murderous Maids." Rating:


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