It's the feel-good softcore porno film of the summer! Just kidding...sort of. Lila Says, the latest from Lebanese writer-director Ziad Doueiri, is indisputably erotic. And, despite some grim goings-on, it's oddly uplifting. But Doueiri is interested in a lot more than mere sex and sentiment.
Set in a seedy North African ghetto in Marseille, the film is based on a controversial French novel by an anonymous writer. It's a story of sexual awakening involving 16-year-old blond vixen Lila (Vahina Giocante, and sorry to go all Seinfeld for a second, but does that name remind you of anything offhand?) and the equally gorgeous 19-year-old Arab boy Chimo (Mohammed Khouas).
Lila, who moves into the neighborhood to live with her crazy aunt, is angelically beautiful and demonically bold. She spots Chimo, recognizes him for the poetic soul that he is, and proceeds to entrance him. Her talk is all sexual bravado; in a near-monotone, and totally deadpan, she recounts endless conquests and fantasies, carefully watching Chimo's reaction to each. In one magical scene, she takes him for a bicycle ride and delivers the sweetest, most innocent handjob of all time. Everything she says and does is deliberate, simultaneously calculated and provocative. She's a master of button-pushing, thoroughly under control, using her mystique and his unspoken lust to work him like a marionette.
Or so it seems at first. Before long it's clear she's pushed a bit too far-something bad is bound to happen, and you can guess pretty easily what it will be. But predictability doesn't lessen the movie's impact. As in Doueiri's great 1998 film West Beirut, plot is only part of the picture. Story and character help create a window onto a certain time and place the filmmaker wants to explore. Doueiri, who got his start slinging cameras for Tarantino, has a knack for putting gorgeous young actors into settings that should be overwhelmingly brutal but somehow come across as vibrant and fascinating instead. In this case, it's the plight of Islamic immigrants in France, which has never been easy but was further aggravated in the wake of 9/11. Racism and economic hardship are rampant. Christian-vs.-Muslim tension threatens to tear the neighborhood apart. Chimo, despite being told that his writing talent could help him escape, decides it's less risky to hang out with his hooligan pals, roaming the streets "looking for something to do...but there isn't anything."
But what Doueiri seems to be saying (at least in part) is that there's something universal about the tender and dangerous experience of growing up. Adolescence is all about discovery, excitement and heartbreak, whether it's in bombed-out Beirut, the slums of Marseille or some more innocuous locale. Hormones are hormones, and frustration (sexual, emotional, economic, artistic) is frustration. It's a weirdly comforting idea.
Not rated. Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7pm Wednesday-Thursday, Sept. 14-22. $4-$7.