16 March 2006 | Chris Knipp
Ghetto struggle and ghetto joy: well-grounded movie that's a pleasure to watch
Zim and Co., a lively story about four pals from the low income banlieu zone in the northern outskirts of Paris we know from riot reports, is nothing but fun to watch, though there's also a vertiginous fear that its protagonist will fall into yet deeper trouble from moment to moment. The film's fresh approach and watchability ought to make it a sure thing in the American art-house market, but it has no distributor.
Pierre and Adrien Jolivet: father and son. Experienced filmmaker (surpisingly given the youthful feel achieved, he's 54), born in this same northern ghettos of Paris himself, depicting the frantic Bicycle Thief-like search of Zim (Adrien) first for a job and then for a serviceable car so he can take the job so he can avoid jail by proving he has one -- a job, that is. He's sideswiped a car on his moto, and cops have come and because he has a minor prior offense and now fails the drug test (he just came from playing a gig and smoked a spliff) the judge invokes tough new two-strike sentencing guidelines and threatens him with jail time if he can't find proof of proper work by the time of his appearance. That's your premise. With Zim (named for his long-gone Polish dad, Zimbietrovski) is his Arab pal and would-be inventor and jack of all trades Cheb and the obligatory black, Arthur, and Safia, who's the brains and firm head of the group, and turns into Zim's girl as the frantic story unwinds.
Jolivet père's skill at storytelling and Jolivet fils's charm and physical panache combine to make this good-humored but well-grounded movie unwind enjoyably from start to finish.
Zim (Adrien Joivet) is a tall, thin, mercurial, poetic-faced twenty-year-old with a big sweep of fashionable-looking hair who plays in a rock band and makes money occasionally unloading trucks for cash at a street market. He's also a white guy in an overwhelmingly multi-cultural, disadvantaged world; the racism that surrounds him is as visible to him as to his ethnic, multi-racial friends, but sometimes it cuts to his advantage. When he considers a variety of possible legit jobs in a swift series of amusing, well-staged scenes, he has a good chance at several of them but rejects them for reasons of his own. He's quickly hired at a sports merchandising company for his knowledge of skateboarding but the day he starts work he has to show up with a high school diploma and a decent-looking car. Getting a driver's license is something he's been working on but not finalized; naturally he'll need that too.
The events whirl around with Zim at the center, but camaraderie is the thing and we get a good look at his young friends' lives too. We learn how plump black Arthur (Yannick Nasso) is supervised by a racist boss as an apprentice in his auto repair program and find out how scary his disciplinarian dad (Maka Kotto) can be. Dinners at the house of Cheb (Mhamed Arezki) reveal his parents' happy interracial marriage and we follow his constant stream of inspirations for dubious labor-saving gadgets. The three pals often eat at the Tunisian sandwich joint where the independent-minded Safia (Naidra Ayadi) is a waitress., and Zim finds her a place to hide out for a while when she has a fight with her boss.
Safia (Naidra Ayadi) has no trouble forging the diploma while she's at it she makes them for Zim's best buddies Arthur (Yannik Nasso) and Cheb (Mhamed Arezki) too. Finding a car (preferably German) is a much taller order. They've got little money, Zim himself is broke, and when they pool their resources and Zim tries to buy a cheap used auto he gets conned: the man takes his cash and leaves with the car. They try various other schemes to find alternate cars. The film is a quick study in ghetto improv and semi-legal dodges. At his worst moment Zim offers his services to local drug czar Ikea (Abdelhafid Metalsi), but balks at the need to use a pistol.
When he gets to the parking part of his driver's license test Zim bangs into both adjacent cars, but the white racist lady tester immediately decides to pass him "to fill a quota." She then lights up and roars with laughter at a comedy tape that makes crude fun of Asians.
Zim and Co. works so well because of skillful writing that never lets the momentum falter no matter how complex the plot, and never loses touch with its genially comprehensive picture of Paris ghetto life and because the young actors are lively and fine, and the scenes are shot in very real gritty locations, with a camera whose work is as colorful and fast-moving as the story. The lively, toe-tapping , appropriately rap-heavy music was composed and assembled by Adiren Jolivet and Sacha Sieff.
Adrien Jolivet got a Most Promising Actor nomination at the French Césars this year, and it's clear we're going to be seeing him on screen again.
(Shown as part of the Renzez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center in March 2006, Zim and Co. opened in Paris August 17, 2006 to generally good press and audience response, and it was part of the Un Certain Regard showings at Cannes.)