By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 21, 2013 at 4:30PM
France-based Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's last feature, the Cannes-winning "A Screaming Man," involved father-son tensions against the backdrop of civil war. By comparison, his followup "Grigris" is something of a letdown, though it works well enough on the scale of a basic character study. The movie has a lot less on its mind and makes no drastic attempts to overreach. A straightforward tale of overcoming personal and professional challenges with no fancy dressing, "Grigris" goes down easy but offers nothing remotely fresh.
The title refers to the nickname of its slick protagonist, a young man named Souleymane (Souleymane Deme) whose killer dance moves make him a popular club presence in the small town in which he resides. Grigris' flexible physicality is especially impressive because of a bad leg that gives him a distinctive gait. Yet the disability isn't exactly a hindrance for Grigris, a seemingly well-liked presence who works for his ailing father. When their hole-in-the-wall business dries up, however, Grigris turns to a local illegal petroleum dealer to support his family, inciting a series of incidents that eventually put him in the gangsters' crosshairs.
In the meantime, he strikes up a romance with local prostitute Mimi (Anais Monory), for whom Grigris falls before he figures out her profession. Acting first for the sake of his family, then for the sake of his lover, and finally running for his life, Grigris is eventually forced to confront the outcome of his seedy associations in a perilous climax.
That's the entire sketch of a plot that writer-director Haroun offers up, as he relies less on story than the charisma of his nimble-footed lead, whose lanky physique is frequently captured in lavish interludes where he practices his hobby. Cinematographer Antoine Herberle brings a lush palette to the proceedings that alternates between the bright colors of daytime Chad scenery and the ominous shadows that engulf Grigris' world when he takes part in the smuggling routines. But the imagery does little to distract from a thin, overly familiar story in which our well-intentioned hero falls for a hooker with a heart of gold and attempts to smooth out the imperfections in their world.
During its final third, when Grigris finds himself in a serious bind and is forced to go on the lam, Haroun seems to give up on making the conundrum particularly compelling and instead lets the characters' inherent likability take charge. The finale, set in a remote area dominated by women where Grigris and his lover take shelter, contains just enough payoff to hint at the possibilities that a stronger narrative could offer. Haroun favors long takes and a gradual pace that unquestionably draws one into his protagonist's world and makes his plight worth rooting for, but there's neither enough plot nor environmental details to justify the bare bones scenario. Instead, "Grigris" resembles its lead character's struggles by giving the impression that it's always on the brink of heading somewhere, but has no clear sense of which direction to take. Certainly an enjoyably screen presence, Grigris dances circles around the limitations of the material.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Unlikely to gain much traction beyond Cannes, the film should enjoy a healthy life on the festival circuit but has minimal theatrical prospects at best.