Review: Besties explores Queerness and the postcolonial condition at the VQFF

Though much of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival (VQFF)’s 2022 programming was offered online, Besties (or Les Meilleures in French) made its Canadian debut at the York Theatre on August 20. The film is the only one in the festival’s program to have been written and directed by a lesbian.

Director Marion Desseigne-Ravel’s piece is a touching story of dealing with Queer confusion and vulnerability — as well as one about coming to terms with the harsh realities of both adolescent and postcolonial French life.

Besties joins the director’s other, shorter works in telling stories about France’s working-class suburbs. Set in the growing Franco-North African community on the outskirts of Paris, Besties follows a spirited teen named Nedjma through life in the projects with her loyal group of best friends. She soon encounters Zina, a gentle new girl who’s moved into the same Buchanan Tower-esque apartment block, but who has joined a rival clique of neighbourhood girls.

Despite the backdrop of bullying, peer pressure and violence among the groups of young women, a spark develops between Nedjma and Zina, and the plot begins unravelling. A river, a bench and rooftop encounters are all involved. The sharing of earbuds, too.

The two face a dual stigma: they both cross the lines that divide their rival gangs and express same-sex love and desire in an environment which frowns upon it.

The dynamic between Nedjma and Zina gave off major star-crossed Romeo and Juliet vibes (or I suppose Juliet and Juliet in this case), without the double suicide or creepy 17th-century gender roles. The film’s hip hop beats, Parisian suburb slang and portrayal of social media use also makes for a refreshingly modern tale.

This film certainly has its place in the ranks of what my French cinema prof would call cinéma de banlieue (suburb cinema) and cinéma d’auteur (arthouse or independent cinema), genres that appeared in the French movie scene in the 70s and 80s and which seek to explore often overlooked and multi-faceted topics such as marginalization, criminality and youth.

Besties does an admirable job at showcasing the contexts of immigrant family expectations, intergenerational differences and the impacts of colonialism and migration on subaltern groups in the suburbs of Paris.

These themes poignantly shone through a candid discussion between Nedjma and her mother about their differing worries in suburban life as Franco-North Africans of different generations. Her mother thinks often about her transition from colonial rule in Algeria to finding community in France, while Nedjma seeks clarity around the hate-filled dynamic between rival clans within the projects.

The climax and dénouement of the film seemed to come a bit abruptly, and I felt that the final scene left me needing a bit more to flesh things out. That said, Desseigne-Ravel has nonetheless directed a compelling queer film that joins the ranks of other meaningful and worthwhile French flics on my watched-list.