“Gagarine” starts like Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher” and ends like “The Martian” in housing projects. That unlikely combo speaks to the unique energy at the heart of Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s poignant first feature, which follows a young man struggling to salvage his earthbound surroundings even as he dreams of leaving them for good.
Just as Ladj Ly’s 2019 “Les Misérables” probed the racially-charged tensions between Parisian officers and its lower classes, “Gagarine” explores an underrepresented slice of recent French history through a personal lens. “Cité Gagarine,” the French housing project that once served as a hub for the French Communist Party throughout the ‘70s, took its name from Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarine, the first man in space — who visited the building complex in the early ‘60s. In 2019, as the building fell into disrepair and the working-class activists who once thrived there died off or moved on, the city demolished Gagarine as its former residents mourned nearby. That sequence serves as a climactic set piece for Liatard and Trouilh’s movie, which opens with archival footage of the cosmonaut’s visit. In between, it crafts a sweet and sentimental story about one inhabitant for whose entire existence has been beholden to that drama.
Named for the same space traveler who also lent his name to the building, soul-searching Black teen Yuri (Alseni Bathily) lives alone, having been abandoned by his single mother and a younger sibling. Yuri lives in the shadow of his namesake, filling his apartment with cosmic imagery and obsessing over astrological events, despite the limitations of his setting. The entrancing opening sequence finds him peeking out the window to survey his neighborhood, where the nearby junkyard and metro seem to define the boundaries of his existence.
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An astonishing discovery who holds his every scene, Bathily bears a marked similarity to “Attack the Block”-era John Boyega, exhibiting a similar blend of curious energy and charisma as he makes his way around the building and its eccentric inhabitants in a quest to eke some meaning out of his limited environment. Mostly, that means bumming around the area with his longtime pal Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and romantic interest Diana (Lynn Khoudri), a Romani woman whose family lives in a nearby encampment. As with Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher,” Liatard and Trouilh excel at oscillating between the neorealist quality of the characters’ drab urban backdrop and the dreamlike sequences that animate Yuri’s aspirations — gazing up at the stars, and sharing astronomical phenomena to awestruck peers, he harbors all the intelligence and ambition of a young man capable of changing the world. Instead, he’s stuck at Gagarine, wrestling to make sense out of limited resources.
“Gagarine” is distinguished by gorgeous wide shots of the vast edifice, often lending the impression of a fortress untouched by time and incapable to letting the modern world in. When Yuri sets up an eclipse viewing party for the community, the shadow that falls across the buildings registers as both ominous and awe-inspiring. Forces much larger than they can comprehend govern their existence, and Yuri’s the only one making the effort to demystify them.
While many of the locals have already made peace with the building’s imminent demise, Yuri takes charge to save it, but a routine inspection leads to the inevitable: Gagarine has to go, and Yuri’s determined to go down with the ship. So begins “The Martian” passage of the movie, as he builds an elaborate ecosystem in the building’s basement using environment support technologies on the International Space Station as his guide. Yuri’s stunning ability to match these resources entirely on his own doesn’t quite hold up — Matt Damon’s botanist is one thing, but a kid? Still, once his encampment comes together, the movie develops into an endearing survival story. Huddling with Diana and a peripatetic local drug dealer named Dali (Finnegan Oldfield), Yuri finds some measure of escape in the prospects of building a new world from scratch.
The filmmakers excel at crafting delightful musical montages to capture the sense of escapism Yuri finds in his newfound support system, but it’s clear that these circumstances provide only a temporary fix. When “Gagarine” arrives at its inevitable finale, the movie takes on a sophisticated tone pitched somewhere between fantasy and real-time suspense. It’s enough to mitigate the effects of the cheesy romance between its lead characters and a lack of clarity to Yuri’s backstory that leaves some measure of uncertainty about the nature of his ambitions. By the end, these shortcomings matter less than the way “Gagarine” manages to import a coming-of-age dynamic into a rich, historically significant milieu, which bemoans the end of one chapter in the country’s history even as it finds some measure of hope in a new generation.
“Gagarine” is part of the Cannes 2020 Official Selection. Cohen Media recently acquired it for U.S. distribution.