“Divines” a film debut worth the buzz

HOLLYWOOD-The choices we make can either help us or derail us. The AFI Fest 2016 showcase of films, animation and movie shorts had plenty of good theatrical releases for people to view during its annual run early in November. The French film “Divines,” considered one of the festival’s best, outlines the importance of the decisions we make.

Winning the AFI Fest 2016 “Breakthrough Audience Award,” the New Auteurs Audience Award,” and capturing the category of “New Auteurs Special Jury Mention for Acting (Oulaya Amamra), more than solidifies the movie’s power to move filmgoers.

The two single reasons why “Divines” knocks you out of your seats is director’s Houda Benyamina stark storytelling and the home run acting of lead actress Oulaya Amamra. Amamra, playing the role of a young female hustler (Dounia) trying to make things better for herself, her best friend and her mother, is magnetic.

Amamra keeps you glued to the screen as Dounia, who can’t seem to figure out if she really wants to be out there in the streets like a shadowy figure pushing drugs or if she just wants to have a normal life like any other teenager who enjoys hanging with her best bud, Maimouna (Deborah Lukumuena).

This story starts off innocent enough as we see Dounia rebel in the classroom to the delight of her classmates. Who haven’t seen this scenario play out before when they were growing up in middle school or high school?

Actress Oulaya Amamra plays Dounia in the French film "Divines." Courtesy photo
Actress Oulaya Amamra plays conflicted teenager Dounia in the French film “Divines.” Courtesy photo

A popular, cool classmate who bucks the system and disrespect authorities make for some funny moments when you’re young and don’t know any better. But this formula doesn’t work well in the real world when you’re trying to become an adult before you’re supposed to. This is the story of Dounia. This is the innate selling point that Benyamina gets across well.

What Benyamina does is reminds all us that there are fruits to your labor and there are consequences for your actions. Sooner or later the Pied Piper is going to get paid. As my father used to tell me and siblings, a hard head makes for a soft behind. Dounia, like those in constant clash with authority figures, have to learn this lesson the hard way.

So obsessed with making money by any means, including illegally by hooking up with a tough drug operator, Dounia dismisses everyone around her, including her mother, except for Maimouna, just to chase paper. For a while, Dounia is rolling, doing her thing.

But then she discovers that she still has to follow the same code of obedience in the world of crime as she had to in the universe of those trying to things the right way. That comes across as somewhat of a shock to Dounia who is used to being a free thinker and doing things her way.

Kevin Mishel (left) and Oulaya Amamra make for great romantic chemistry in "Divines." Courtesy photo
Kevin Mischel (left) and Oulaya Amamra make for great romantic chemistry in “Divines.” Courtesy photo

Jisca Kalvanda, who plays Rebecca, a no-nonsense drug lord, lays the hammer down on Dounia when she steps out of place and forces the teenager to re-think her choice to be part of the underworld’s mandate of betrayal and disloyalty.

Dounia doesn’t have problem with her girl, Maimouna. Throughout her chaotic existence, Dounia manages to hold on to her one constant: Maimouna. What you can appreciate about “Divines” is the simplicity of life that it manages to hold on to. Seeing these two reminds us what best friends are for, for good or bad.

It also tells the tale of how a friendship can sometimes be unbalanced where one friend is the dominant one, while the other flocks along with that friend, even though they know some of the choices they make may not be in the best interest to them. Who haven’t been there?

Dounia is the good friend with the bullying and dominant personality. Maimouna, on the other hand, is just too grateful to tag along with her buddy, even at her own peril. But like best friends do, they are an odd pairing that will not allow anything to come between them, even a drug boss.

All of this would make a great storyline for a film. But when Benyamina adds in a romantic twist into the plot with Dounia falling for Djigui (Kevin Mischel), a local dancer, things get more complex. While the love heats up between Dounia and Djigui, Rebecca calls on her teenage flunkie to do a job that would infiltrate her rival’s stash she believes belongs to her.

Of course, this is not going to end well as Dounia finds herself torn to try to be normal and be with her guy or go all in into the corrupt environment she enlisted to. What follows is a trail of deceit, violence, murder and an ending that rips your heart out.

The thing about “Divines” is that this movie formula that Benyamina comes up with is well within the realm of reality as many of us probably can identify with an individual, whether it is someone else or ourselves, who have made life-crippling decisions that we regret. That is the place where Dounia finds herself living in.

It is a place she knows only has one way out.

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