Lila Says, Ziad Doueiri's second feature after his festival favorite West Beirut, is a stunning work that tells a simple story about the unlikely bonding of a restless Arab teen and a seductive blonde newcomer in a predominantly North African Marseilles neighborhood. The film excels on many fronts and induces a rare kind of cinematic immersion and nervous intimacy, thanks to its deft treatment of sexual confusion and awakening.
Adapted from a cult novel by Chimo, the story focuses on Chimo (Mohammed Khouas), an unemployed 19-year-old living with his hard-working mother (Carmen Lebbos) and laying about with Mouloud (Karim Ben Haddou), Bakary (Lotfi Chakri), and Grand Jo (Hamid Dkhissi), his unruly pals.
Early on, one of Chimo's teachers suggests he has talent as a writer, thus signaling where the story might take us. What takes us by surprise is the strange friendship with beautiful 16-year-old Lila, who arrives in the neighborhood to live with her oddball aunt (Edmonde Franchi).
Lila, with a precocity for talking dirty and acting provocatively, latches onto Chimo. Unaware that the relationship is chaste, hothead Mouloud grows jealous and the inevitable violence ensues. But when Chimo uncovers the mystery of the blonde temptress, Lila Says delivers a final jolt that smartly caps the film.
Lurching between the predictable and the surprising, this French/Italian/U.K. co-production is mainly a triumph of carefully orchestrated parts. The casting is spot-on, with Giocante, Khouas and Ben Haddou delivering what should become career-making performances.
John Daly's camerawork, mostly handheld and "Steadicammed" in one breathtakingly erotic scene on a moped, is always stylish, as odd angles, close-ups and rich establishing shots bring us deep into the characters and milieu. Ziad, who pulled this all together and so successfully helped adapt a difficult and disjointed novel, will surely be a director in demand.
Lila Says deserves a very respectable turnout, although it may register less positively with male audiences, as so much of the erotic promise is a tease. But female audiences will realize that that is exactly the point.