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Review: Laurent Cantet’s eye for social issues on display in ‘The Workshop’

Marina Fois in "The Workshop."
(Strand Releasing)

French filmmaker Laurent Cantet’s incisive way with discomforting social issue dramas (“Human Resources,” “Time Out”) is again on display in “The Workshop.”

Over the summer in a once thriving blue-collar shipyard town transformed by closure and rebirth into a resort area, famous writer Olivia (Marina Fois) teaches a multiethnic group of local teenagers how to collaborate on a literary thriller that reflects their lives and surroundings.

When sullen loner Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) provokes the group’s conscience-driven story ideas with racist pushback and disturbing prose, vigorously questioning the authority of Olivia’s violence-tinged novels, she is both rattled and intrigued. In and out of class, they begin an edgy back-and-forth that — in a thoughtfully charged scenario from Cantet and frequent collaborator Robin Campillo — feels as if it could go in any number of hazardous directions.

The trappings are thriller-ish, but the playing field is recognizably timely: a fast-changing economic/cultural world in which some youth are up for the challenge to reconcile a vanished past with a roiling present — France’s terrorism woes are explicitly referenced — while others are dangerously indifferent to it.

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Olivia’s intellectual, even exploitative fascination with Antoine’s contradictions — sharp-eyed yet intemperate, self-avowedly apolitical yet drawn to far-right ideologues online — proves a compellingly honest frame within which to brushstroke one very troubled white boy.

The leads are excellent, too, anchoring Cantet’s sincere, complex mixture of discourse and voyeurism, as if the undiluted teacher/student naturalism of his 2008 film “The Class” had fermented into something more volatile.

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‘The Workshop’

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In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Landmark Nuart Theatre, West L.A.

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