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‘Gagarine’ Film Review: Youths in a Paris Housing Project Reach for the Stars

Unflinching, exhilarating portrait of poverty and dashed dreams throws much-needed light on how society treats the working class

Forget the romanticized versions of Paris and its surrounding areas that often dominate both film and TV — “Gagarine” gets brutally real about the City of Lights.

Although the film’s narrative is a work of fiction, there is a real grounding to it that confronts the issues of displacement working-class and poor people increasingly face. Setting the story at the now-demolished Cité Gagarin housing project on the outskirts of Paris helps accomplish that.

Named for the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space, the Gagarine building is a character unto itself. The film’s protagonist Youri (played by Alséni Bathily) even derives his name from the iconic figure. But even though young Youri has dreams of also traveling to space, being poor makes realizing them tough. Co-directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh have professional experience with public policies of displacement and have incorporated that into this feature-length expansion of their 2015 short.

Youri finds himself in an especially precarious position. At just 16, his mother has left him behind for a new love. At Gagarine, a building of roughly 370 apartments, he has extended family, particularly a great friend in Houssam (Jamil McCraven, “Nocturama”) and potential first love in Diana (Lyna Khoudri, “The French Dispatch”), a Roma girl whose own housing is unstable. Those ties help ease the pain of his mother’s abandonment.

When he learns of the impending demolition of the building, Youri rallies his neighbors to help repair it, in hopes of bringing it up to code. He also makes it possible for them to collectively enjoy an astronomical phenomenon. To do all of this, he sacrifices personal items of great sentimental value.

As residents are forced to leave anyway, Youri has nowhere to go and is too hurt and embarrassed to tell anyone else. He and Houssam have fallen out. His mother does not answer his calls.  To cope, he creates his own retreat that, at moments, echoes a much poorer man’s version of “The Martian.” Youri’s ability to approximate some of the privileged accomplishments for which white people are widely celebrated should have earned him a ticket to an elite college to pursue his otherworldly ambitions.  

Alséni Bathily makes a stunning debut, always mesmerizing, even when he’s just communicating with his eyes and body language. In Youri, he captures a quiet strength while also laying bare the character’s many insecurities and vulnerability. There’s rarely a moment where you don’t ache for him or root for him to win, no matter how stacked the odds are against him. The first-timer’s chemistry with the more experienced McCraven and Khoudri feels realistic and endearing.

As Youri, Bathily (whose own father once lived in Gagarine) communicates many uncomfortable truths about our world today. When Cité Gagarine opened, it did so under Communist ideals intended to center people. In the decades since its celebrated early 1960s launch, welcoming people in need of decent and affordable housing, those ideals are now considered extremist. Capitalism is now so entrenched that globally the poor and working-class are routinely blamed for their unfortunate circumstances.

Youri — as well as his friend Dali (Finnegan Oldfield, “Reinventing Marvin”), who turns to drug dealing to survive — represents the many whose lives are shattered by such displacements. “Gagarine” also reminds us of the tremendous lack of resources available to people like Youri and Dali.

Through the very real circumstances of the Cité Gagarine, directors Liatard and Trouilh put faces and names to the many public policy discussions conducted in private that destroy both the lives and legacies of real people. The filmmakers employ magical realism not to obscure reality, but rather to amplify it. This building came down only a couple of years ago, uprooting scores of people, but the decay began long ago with the building’s routine neglect.

We may never know if and when cries for affordable housing will be heard, but we can still applaud Liatard and Trouilh’s innovative attempt to bring this pressing issue to the forefront through film. Their incorporation of archival footage from Cité Gagarine’s actual opening as well as that of the female astronaut Claudie Haignéré in space, coupled with oral histories of Gagarine’s residents (with whom they crowdsourced narratively to create the story) gives new possibilities on how film can touch on the lives of real people.

With “Gagarine,” they document those lives and grievances, giving voice to those who often go unheard, creating a film that could well sow seeds of compassion that might result in real change.

“Gagarine” opens in US theaters April 1.

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