The New Kid (Le nouveau)

France (2015) Dir. Rudi Rosenberg

Fitting in isn’t easy when you are the newcomer whether it is at school, work, or a club, something we shy, socially inept folk know all too well. We all want to make a good impression and get along with our peers but some people strive for universal popularity among those who matter. The question is, is it really worth it?

Benoit (Rephael Ghrenassia) a 13 year-old boy whose family have moved from Le Havre to Paris is struggling to make friends at his new school, something his younger brother has no problems with. Taking chocolates per a suggestion from his mother fails to work but does see Charles (Eytan Chiche) and his obnoxious crew inveigle an invite to Benoit’s home where they mock him mercilessly before running out on him.

Despite being a normal kid, Benoit is lumped in with the other social pariahs at school – Constantin (Guillaume Cloud Roussel), a nerdy chatty boy, chubby joker Joshua (Joshua Raccah), and disabled newcomer Aglaee (Geraldine Martineau), who isn’t ostracised as such but is subject to crude whispers. Problems arise when Benoit falls for new Swedish student Johanna (Johanna Lindstedt), also coveted by Charles and co.

Actor turned director Rudi Rosenberg spins a familiar yarn of the horrors of school days for the many of us who were never one of the “cool kids” and instead left to rot on the periphery of the cliques and gangs. The New Kid may be a Parisian take on the subject but the resonance is universal. Thankfully, Rosenberg and co-writers Igor Gotesman and Bruno Muschio have eschewed depicting the bullying as a harrowing experience.

Such a relief as it is from being emotionally bludgeon by the usual overload of distress and morbidity, Rosenberg opts for gentle, sometimes lurid humour echoing the misfit 80s comedies like Revenge Of The Nerds but with more heart. There is a small touch of Mean Girls in the progression for Benoit’s journey at one point, but overall the tone is natural and relatable.

Rosenberg may have only 80-minutes to tell his story but he paces it rather well, with the formation of these outliers an exponential happening rather than the usual geeks unite in the first 10 minutes scenario. Joshua sits next to Benoit but his messy state and inability to read the room creates an immediate divide. When Benoit’s mum suggests he takes chocolates into school to make friends, he is ignored so Joshua helps himself a well as handing them out to the others, which doesn’t go down so well.

Constantin is another one who is a little too myopic with his methods. He is not short on confidence but lacks finesse; plus his sinewy frame, nerdy uniform of glasses and braces is an instant repellent to his fashionable classmates. His biggest failure like, Joshua, is misreading the situation – when Aglaee first arrives, Constantin steps up to defend her against the snide whispers of the others but his intended valour is clumsily patronising instead.

Unfortunately, Aglaee disappears for the second half of the film, a huge misstep in my opinion as she is arguably the most fascinating character. She doesn’t court sympathy for her physical disability, rather she is presented as intelligent, confident, and as if she doesn’t see herself as handicapped. Presenting Aglaee so positively as a regular teen girl is highlighted by an embarrassing encounter in the changing rooms between her and Constantin that will have you thinking “My god, they went there!”.

Meanwhile, Benoit and shy Swede Johanna are bonding over their outcast status, her being her weak French, although the boys are more forgiving than the girls, including ego maniac bully Charles and his crew. Benoit’s hopes are dashed when he is late for lunch one day and Johanna sits with Charles, and has now decided he is not that bad. But Benoit doesn’t give up, which is the focus of the second half, a mixture of pathos and sheer immaturity.

Not the most original script, it might not be so surprising to learn the four outliers bond at a party Benoit throws at which they are the only ones to attend (Johanna was away with her family). It’s a total dud until Benoit’s slacker uncle Greg (Max Boublil) shows up and teaches them a thing or two about embracing their unique qualities, as well as few things they should have ignored, and a good time is eventually had, sowing the seeds of a new friendship.

The 80-minute run time has its drawbacks, vis-à-vis the horribly rushed ending. I won’t spoil it but suddenly all of the things that looked like they weren’t going to happen actually happen with no explanation. However, it means things do end on a high note to reaffirm the central message of treating everyone with respect and being popular for the sake of it is both fleeting and overrated.

With a few exceptions, the young cast were mostly first timers who impress with their comfort before the camera and the naturalism of their performances. There are many moments where it didn’t appear like they were acting or working to a script, making this enjoyable and oddly nostalgic for older viewers. The biggest surprise is Geraldine Martineau as Aglaee who was 30 at the time; nor is she actually disabled, which may not sit well with some but she is utterly convincing.

Kudos to Rosenberg for his feature debut, an extension of an earlier short film Aglaee which starred Martineau. It may not be hugely ambitious direction or style wise but it has a down to earth quality that gives it a warmth the subject doesn’t always deserve, and is an easy film to get into. That said it needed another 10-15 minutes to tie up a few loose ends since so many characters vanish without reason.

Leaving us wanting a little more The New Kid is a succinct and tidy outing, offering a fun Gallic look at social castes is schools.

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