For her first outing as director Sylvie Ohayon has adapted her autobiographical novel, Papa was not a Rolling Stone, to the big screen. It’s a coming-of-age film set in the notorious 4000 housing estate in La Courneuve on the outskirts of Paris which pulls no punches in it depiction of how grim life was back in the 80s when families from all ethnic backgrounds were forced to live in close proximity to each other. But unlike other films which home in on the problems caused by these living conditions – drugs, domestic violence, delinquency – Ohayon uses them as the backdrop to the more gripping story of a young woman’s struggle to escape her destiny.
Stephanie (Doria Achour) lives with her mother Micheline (Aure Atika) and her violent step-father Christian (Marc Lavoine) in one of the 4,000 apartments on the housing estate. She is hard-working and intelligent and dreams of leaving La Courneuve to study at university in Paris. Her passion for French literature and dance provide an escape from the obstacles she faces in pursuit of her goal and ultimately she knows she can never stay behind and lead the life that awaits her friends.
Papa was not a Rolling Stone is an accomplished film for a first-time director, but it’s not without flaws. There’s the overly sentimental idea that good friends and family are a universal panacea for all life’s pain and unhappiness. Stephanie’s most important relationships are with her BFF Fatima (Soumaye Bocoum), her grandmother and her boyfriend Rabah (Rabah Nait Oufella). And yet what price friendship when those close to you want to drag you down into the mud of mediocrity? One of the most telling scenes is between Stephanie and the school career’s advisor. At first the advisor congratulates Stephanie on her excellent academic record, but when she realises she has her sights set on university in Paris, she is told to ‘come back down to earth’. The message is clear, you can’t beat the system. And how uplifting when Stephanie puts this theory to the test.
While the female characters are fully-rounded and plausible, the male roles lean towards caricature. Lavoine’s Christian is a beer-swilling, unreconstructed, bully with no redeeming qualities whatsoever while it’s stretching credibility to suggest a young woman as intelligent as Stephanie would be drawn to the monosyllabic, charmless Rabah. Achour is a real find. She is endlessly captivating as a young woman seeking a new identity away from her religious and socio-economic background.
It will be interesting to see what Ohayon does with less personal material.