Too many movies to name begin with a famous quotation as an opening title, a prologue that parks the objectives of the story within the parameters of a pithy observation about life, love or the world we live in. We forget them before the frame has wholly faded into the first scene.
But here’s one you need to remember, first scene to last. The French dramedy “Bad Seeds (Mauvaises herbes)” is introduced with a famous phrase from Victor “Les Miersables” Hugo — “There are no bad seeds or bad men; there are only bad farmers.”
“Bad Seeds” is loaded with laughs, but a Middle Eastern massacre plays out under its opening credits. A little boy is the sole survivor.
The first of many jarring shifts in tone jumps us from this tiny waif’s plight, weeping and lost and alone, to present day Paris and the parking lot of a mall. An old woman has her purse snatched. An elderly passerby gives chase.
But the moment thief and pursuer are out of sight, the legendary Catherine Deneuve, as Monique, proceeds to empty the chivalrous stranger’s cart into her car trunk.
The abandoned purse always has a note in it, in French — “That will teach you to help others, a—–e!”
The young mugger (the French comic and writer-director-star Kheiron) and “old lady” are in cahoots. They share the haul and share an apartment.
She’s all “I’m not old, I’m EXPERIENCED (in French, with English subtitles).” He’s forever pulling scams — getting phone numbers of beautiful women who think he’s at the airport (he’s in a suit) to pick up Beyoncé and/or Jay-Z. Oddly, he never has the nerve to call.
But one mall carpark hustle too many puts them in the sights of her old friend, Victor (screen veteran André Dussollier of “Amelie” and “A Very Long Engagement”). He recognizes her, and chases down him. Damned if the tables aren’t turned.
Monique shrugs it off, but Waël has a rap sheet. And Victor’s turning the tables has a kicker. I’d hate to turn you in. Help me run this class for troubled kids — just for a day.
Monique can be his “volunteer” secretary, as he interviews to fill a permanent teaching position. Waël will handle the kids.
Mon dieu! Is he qualified?
“No,” she chuckles. “But he’s full of surprises.”
So the “retired” woman who describes her job as “to keep (Waël) out of jail,” will work the office — scaring off potential qualified competitors there for a job interview. Waël, who is none the wiser, has to engage and entertain “problem children” kicked out of the schools in Creteil well enough to keep them coming back.
Kheiron, whose real name is Manouchehr Tabib, leans on his stand-up background to try and get the half-dozen miscreants, who give him the silent treatment “in protest” of their punishment, to speak to him and to get something out of this “class.”
He riffs. You, Karim! Are you gay?
“Change your SHIRT, then!”
To Ludo, the one African in the class, “Remember to brush your teeth. Back in the day, slaves with the best teeth had the most value. And you never know…”
He insults them, regales them with tall tales, and takes them out into the nearby streets to make connections, beg, hustle and “communicate.”
Two kids are in rival gangs, one’s hiding a painful secret, the youngest is a Gypsy (Roma) who never stayed in one place long enough to learn to speak French, much less to write it.
Victor — who coincidentally shares the first name of Monsieur Victor Hugo — has just one bit of advice for dealing with this cross-section of modern France. “Remember, a problem child is a child with a problem.”
The little life lessons/hustles are cute, Deneuve’s Monique has plenty of hustles up her own sleeve, and so much of the movie’s “present day” is light that it plays like a teacher-changes-students/students-change-teacher comedy that isn’t quite all there.
And then WHAM, a flashback takes us back to Beirut (never overtly identified) and the horrors this little boy endured many years ago. He finds sunglasses, and learns to be a “blind” beggar/pickpocket. He witnesses crimes and death, suffers loss and want and fear.
Waël, too, picks up on the “child with a problem” cases in his class, when he isn’t hitting on the voluptuous older sister of one student and wondering what this shifty-looking “social worker” is doing lurking around another.
Kheiron has a deft hand with comedy, and like many a comic who writes her or himself into a film, a passion for pathos. Deneuve could play her light, sweet and not-above-deceit character in her sleep, and doesn’t. She’s delightful, and the fact that the script doesn’t over-explain her or her connection to Waël adds to the “old lady” cool she wears with her usual style.
And Dussollier gets two of the biggest, simplest laughs you can imagine, and does so with a very French elan.
But the turns toward the touching in the third act makes “Bad Seeds” more than a comedy that almost works. They are lump in the throat moments that pay homage to Victor Hugo, to “bad seeds” given the right farmer, to the art of the con artist’s “long con,”and to that one teacher/mentor/surrogate parent who makes a difference in just one life, and lives to see its ripple effects.
Watch it in French, enjoy the laughs, stay to the end, keep your Kleenex box handy and expect to be moved.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence, profanity
Cast: Kheiron, Catherine Deneuve, André Dussollier, Ouassima Zrouki, Youssouf Wague Louison Blivet, Hakou Benosmane, Adil Dehbi, Joseph Jovanovic, Leila Boumedjane
Credits: Written and directed by Kheiron. A Studio Canal/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:45