In the French film “Shéhérazade,” set in the hardscrabble Arab underbelly of Marseilles, love makes a young couple’s future seem hopeful, but the streets prove a rough garden in which to tend it. A gritty romance between a 17-year-old juvie parolee and a teen prostitute, Jean-Bernard Marlin’s propulsive debut feature deploys some tried-and-true techniques of social realism in the age of the Dardenne brothers — nonprofessional actors, authentic locations and verité kineticism.
But there’s also just enough of the melodramatic and dreamlike — especially in Jonathan Ricquebourg’s soft-edged, colorfully smeary cinematography — to get us invested in the happy ending we know could exist for wannabe criminal Zachary (Dylan Robert) and pragmatic Shéhérazade (Kenza Fortas).
Marlin’s characters are desperate souls but also always heartbreakingly youthful ones. They recognize in each other a sensitivity worth nurturing — if only he could recognize when boyish hedonism should end and caring sacrifice should begin, and she wasn’t constantly in danger walking the streets. Like a lot of classic gang characters, yet still made fresh via Robert’s magnetically raw performance, Zachary is trapped in an outlook that favors loyalty to thuggish childhood pals and a neglectful mother over the possibilities of an honest living and heartfelt companionship.
And while the third act hinges on the kinds of perilous events we can see coming, leading to a courtroom trial with seemingly everything on the line, “Shéhérazade” wins us over with what we love about love: its strength in even the direst of circumstances.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes