The “miserables” of the new French film “Les Misérables” don’t have a lot to do with the famous Victor Hugo novel of the same name — just enough to underscore the movie’s power. Set in the Paris suburb of Montfermeil, now as in Hugo’s day a desperately poor and neglected district, the film’s a document of social crisis disguised as a cop movie. It’s rough and observant, stacked with finely etched characters whose sympathies keep shifting along with ours.
The central three are police detectives assigned to an anti-crime unit in the high-rise “banlieues” that are essentially vertical ghettos. Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is the small-town transfer on his first day, hardly a newbie and increasingly the movie’s conscience. Chris, a.k.a. “Pink Pig” (co-writer Alexis Manenti), is the swaggering, hot-tempered bully with a badge. Gwada (Djebril Zonga) is a neighborhood kid grown into a man uneasily patrolling his home turf.
They smooth over internecine squabbles, puff themselves up before the swarms of young boys in the streets — this is a movie virtually without women — and weigh various groups against each other: the corrupt mayor (Steve Tientcheu) with his chief enforcer (Omar Soumare), the Muslim Brotherhood members who form their own peacekeeping squad; an imposing restaurant owner, Salah (Almamy Kanouté), who everyone acknowledges is the only genuinely just man around.
A born troublemaker of a kid, Issa (Issa Perica), lights the film’s fuse by stealing a lion cub from a nearby gypsy circus; the mayor tells the cops to find the boy before a street war erupts. “Les Misérables” has been adapted from a 2017 short by its writer-director, Ladj Ly, whose parents are from Mali but who grew up in Montfermeil; the camera and the story traverse the neighborhood with the ease and eye for detail of someone born there. The film darts up to rooftops, where a loner of a boy (Al-Hassan Ly) spies on the streets with a drone; into quiet apartments where women gather; out into debris-filled skate parks overrun by idle kids.
At the same time, you can feel the filmmaker padding out his short story to feature length in ways that work against it and occasionally to its benefit. There’s an act of violence involving one of the boys that’s captured by the drone, and suddenly “Les Misérables” is a chase film as obsessed with a memory-card MacGuffin as any Hollywood thriller. That glibness bodes well for Ly’s future success as a commercial director but it works against the movie’s vérité grit.
Still, Ly always keeps the balance of power in mind, how it shifts constantly from one group to another and how the police will always be resented by outsiders as long as they demand respect without giving any. If that’s Chris’s problem — and, Ly implies, all of France’s — the movie’s secondary drama lies in watching the quiet, empathetic Ruiz try to improvise a different way.
“Les Misérables” is hardly sentimental enough to think that will turn the trick. The movie appears to come to an early climax, then take a step back while the characters catch their breath; we, too, bask in the release of tension. It’s a feint, though, and it leads to a white-knuckle finale that suggests a generational apocalypse aching for rough justice and making an irresolvable stand-off with the powers that be. The movie is up for an Oscar for best international film. If you can get past the subtitles, the language it speaks is international too.
Directed by Ladj Ly. Written by Ly, Giordano Gederlini, and Alexis Manenti. Starring Damien Bonnard, Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Steve Tientcheu, Issa Perica. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 105 minutes. R (violence, language). In French, with subtitles.