“You Resemble Me” is a tale of two sisters, raised under abuse, cast out of their home and torn apart by The State.
A sometimes moving, always gripping story of a life on the streets, it’s also French account of how members of France’s immigrant communities — descendants of those who moved there from France’s many overseas colonies — become radicalized.
The directing debut of co-writer and star Dina Amer is a vivid portrait of the French underclass and one of the best movies to ever make us walk a mile in the shoes of someone we might not be able to identify with — someone radicalized — but who seems more relatable and understandable, the more time we spend with her.
Hasna and Mariam (Lorenza Grimaudo, Ilonna Grimaudo) could not be tighter. They’re about 9 and 6 when we meet them, adorable urchins who make their own fun together and run around, free range kids on the tourist-packed streets of Paris.
Their favorite game is their “You resemble me!” (in French with English subtitles), no “You resemble ME!” “You have the same MOUTH as me,” “You have the same BEAUTY marks as ME.”
They don’t have to dress alike for them to say it or for us to see it. But on Mariam’s birthday, they do dress alike. Somehow, streetwise Hasna has found them matching dresses.
Getting home, brother Yousef has other presents. But their celebration is cut short when they awaken their mother (Sana Sri) with the noise. Mom, who has four kids ranging in age from tween to toddler, hasn’t just forgotten Mariam’s birthday. She starts gathering up presents Yousef has given her.
“We could sell this in Morocco.”
She wants to know where Hasna got the money for the dresses, and wants whatever cash she has on her. And then she wants the dresses, which she is sure she could also sell in her native Morocco.
Mom is abusive, and plainly mentally ill. One near-brawl later, captured by a frenetic hand-held camera, Hasna and her inseparable sister are on the streets, stealing from the homeless, shoplifting food and sundries from street market vendors, keeping it together no matter how perilous their circumstances.
But the words “Have I ever let you down?” have barely crossed on Hasna’s lips when an irate vendor grabs them and they find themselves in child protective services.
And this time, they won’t be going home. They won’t be “placed” together. For “your own good,” they’re being separated.
“You took half of my life away!” the older sibling screams.
Placing Hasna with a wealthy French family doesn’t mollify her. When they insist on serving her pork at Christmas dinner, she’s back on the lam with her cowboy hat and a lifetime of brutally hard lessons ahead of her.
Years later, cowgirl-obsessed Hasna (director and co-writer Amer) is still on the streets, in the clubs, procuring drugs and using sex to pay for them, only living a “normal” life when she’s babysitting for an old friend, who lets her crash at her place.
She reaches out to her sister, but Mariam won’t answer the phone. Hasna tries to hold down a job, but her street life makes her recognizable and her short temper won’t let her keep it. Her story seems one insurmountable impasse after another.
Amer frames this personal saga with events closer to the present day, as adult Hasna narrates her gripes about being brought up French when the French won’t accept her and her kind as they are.
“Do the French think I’ve come to slit the throats of their wives and daughters?”
It’s a rhetorical question.
Amer’s brisk script keeps many of the ugliest events in Hansa’s life off camera. But we see enough to fear for her safety and fret over her more violent impulses. By the time she’s an adult, she is certainly tough enough to take care of herself even if she’s too unschooled for even the Army.
The child actresses have no trouble making themselves appear vulnerable, at risk and yet essentially happy, so long as they’re together. The adult Amer gives a searing portrait of just how lost someone who went through all this might be, how belligerent she is about insisting that others hear her story and what she’s survived.
Amer handles the action beats with skill — hand-held camera fights and chases — and does a great job of hiding the story’s revelations, stringing us along, pointing us this way when she knows things will go that way.
French police aren’t portrayed as racists here, even if they are sticklers about enforcing the country’s no hijab policy. And when Hasna and we first open the online “recruitment video” of an Islamic extremist relative, we see how it plays and how it might appeal to someone as disaffected as Hasna, even if we see the holes in its arguments.
“Our religion and their culture are not compatible.”
Perhaps so, we think. But as we’ve watched this troubling, engrossing and empathetically-rendered story unfold and noted its many way points, one can’t help but feel we and the filmmaker are as at a loss about what could be done to alter such life paths, and their outcomes, as France herself.
Rating: unrated, violence, drug abuse, sexual situations, smoking, profanity
Cast: Dina Amer, Lorenza Grimaudo, Ilonna Grimaudo, Sana Sri, Agnès de Tyssandier and Alexandre Gonin
Credits: Directed by Dina Amer, scripted by Dina Amer and Omar Mullick. A Dedza release.
Running time: 1:31