A somewhat common narrative from recent European indies has been detailing the lives of the massive immigrant communities that live in the large housing block projects at the fringes of cities like London & Paris. Titles like Girlhood, Swagger, and Attack the Block have found an unfathomably wide range of stories to tell within that context, but remain confined to those insular communities in a kind of stationary, immersive experience. The recent French indie Wallay offers a take on the housing block immigrant experience I haven’t seen before by transporting its subjects to a drastically external, literally foreign setting. Wallay is worthy in its own right as an endearing coming of age story about a second-generation French immigrant learning small scale lessons about responsibility, romance, and identity, but those are familiar story beats we’ve seen many times before. It feels much more unique & revelatory in the way it details the cultural limbo immigrants occupy between the European cities that keep them at arm’s length & the African villages they left for economic opportunity by thoughtfully profiling both ends of that divide.
A second-generation, teenage French immigrant butts heads with his exasperated father who cannot control his behavior. A little badass in a bucket hat, the teenage delinquent commits minor acts of small scale rebellion in his Parisian housing block for payoffs as glorious as black market tennis shoes & appearing in YouTube-upload rap videos. He runs into trouble when he’s caught committing one of his more egregious schemes, siphoning off funds from the money orders his father sends back home to their extended family in West Africa. As punishment, he’s sent to the African village where his father was raised to live with the family he stole from, where he is tasked with paying back the money through months of manual labor. As a spoiled brat, he of course initially refuses to participate in this lesson in humility, scoffing in horror at his new “home’s” infrequent power supply & lack of indoor plumbing, His struggle to adjust to & learn from his mistakes is especially apparent in his relationship with his new caretaker & would-be employer, a harsh authority figure of an uncle. The language & cultural barriers between the mismatched pair eventually break down in the exact ways you’d expect them to, but Wallay finds plenty of delicate moments of humility, romance, familial love, and personal growth in the struggle, with many of them being solidly, endearingly comedic.
Berni Goldblat’s directorial debut saw its American premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. Outside a few scenes of its bratty teen protagonist struggling to trek through African wilderness or listening to hip-hop in headphones inside a mosquito tent, Wallay is only about a visually striking as you’d expect from a mini-budget indie with those means of distribution. The film finds its own tonal groove elsewhere, though, especially in its minimalist, plucked cello score & its circumcision-obsessed cultural humor, which can be much cruder than you’d expect from this kind of story. Teen actor Makan Nathan Diarra also elevates Wallay with genuine character moments as the lead grows into a better, more empathetic person. Mostly, though, the film feels significant in the way it adds a new wrinkle to the European housing block narrative by giving that community an external perspective. These kids really are caught halfway between two identities and I haven’t seen that cultural limbo represented onscreen quite like this before.