If you dream big, aim for the stars. This positive message is taken to its quite literal interpretation by the protagonist of Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s Gagarine. Their debut feature was part of the Cannes 2020 selection and it is easy to see why Gagarine is a film that could have landed a slot in the festival’s main sidebar, Un Certain Regard, or perhaps even the main competition (dream big, right?). A film brimming with imagination but rooted in social reality, Gagarine offers a glimpse into a future for France and its youth that is hopeful, positive, and inclusive.
Gagarine is based on an actual demolition of a housing project, Cité Gagarine on the outskirts of Paris. Built in the early ’60s, its name is obviously a reference to the first man in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. His feat was a giant leap forward for mankind (Neil Armstrong be damned), and a moment for an optimistic gaze at the future, just as the construction of this building complex was. Half a century later that optimism had eroded and the building was demolished in 2019. But in Gagarine, at least one inhabitant still holds hope for a better future, and to him the celestial sky is the limit. Or his imagination is.
Youri (an excellent debut by Alséni Bathily) is a black teenager who lives in Cité Gagarine by himself after having been left to his own devices by his single mother. Unlike most of his peers, Youri wants to make something of the rundown apartment building and its community that he loves so much. So when he catches wind of a planned demolition due to the miserable state of the complex, he and his friend Houssam (Jamil McCraven) go out of their way to get all faulty wiring and other problems fixed. The two enlist the help of Diana (Lyna Khoudri), a pretty and practical girl (and later love interest) from an adjacent Roma camp who helps the boys get supplies from an easily angered junk peddler (a small role by the always entertaining Denis Lavant).
Despite their efforts, Youri and Houssam cannot prevent the building from failing inspection, and Cité Gagarine’s final fate is sealed: the inhabitants get a six-months eviction notice. As family after family slowly trickles out, Youri remains steadfast in place, even managing to escape the demolition crews stripping the building. He turns his small flat into a space capsule of sorts, made up from scraps from the building and elsewhere. The only people to keep him company in his little space cocoon from time to time are Diana and Dali (Finnegan Oldfield), a drug dealer also sticking around in the decrepit complex. The moment of demolition draws near, and the closer we get to it the more Gagarine gets into the imagination of its protagonist, launching into a spectacular finale.
Based on their own 2015 short film by the same title, Liatard and Trouilh weave Gagarine into a colorful tapestry of social realism and youthful romanticism, with flights of fancy dotting it like the stars Youri dreams of. The result brims with optimism and imagination, as if a new France is reborn on the ruins of the old. In this context, it is no coincidence that most major roles are played by minority actors, and it is not because of the film’s milieu alone. Gagarine‘s unabashedly uncynical look at the edges of Parisian society is a look at a new generation emerging from France’s womb, as symbolized by Youri breaking free of Cité Gagarine. He is a symbol of hope and progress, reflected in his namesake, echoing the hopes of moving up in the world that his parents had when they moved there. Gagarine is a story of death and rebirth, of dreams taking root in the rubble.
Part of the film’s charm lies in the interchange between the real and the imagined, between what Youri truly experiences and what is in his head. The separation between the two slowly fades as we get closer to the moment of demolition, as the building dies out in real life while the universe comes alive around Youri. This magical realism that propels Liatard and Trouilh’s vessel is indebted to an inspired sound design by Margot Testemale and a variety of cinematographic styles employed by DOP Victor Seguin. From social realism to the almost whimsical to stark sci-fi, Youri’s inspirational story comes to life in rich sound and color. You would have to be a true cynic not to be at least a little captivated and uplifted by this story of shooting for the stars and never giving up on your dreams.