Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi) is a teenage gang member who hangs out with his Moroccan peers and elders, getting along with them because he is willing to commit petty crimes and pass the proceeds on to them, as today, when he steals a woman's handbag from her car when she is stopped in traffic. The local police, who every gang hates in the city of Brussels, are always taking an interest and checking up on youths like him, with some more compassionate than others, such as Mina (Sanâa Alaoui), who knows very well the crimes Marwan is involved in but seems powerless to prevent him digging himself in deeper to this life of lawbreaking. But if there's one thing the gangs hate more than the cops, it's the other gangs...
That's why when we are introduced to Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio) we sense trouble in the air, not only because we start off seeing her at her worst as well. She is member of a rival gang, black African this time as opposed to the more Arabic gang that Marwan belongs to, and she is picked up by the police for shoplifting which as coincidence would have it sees her taken to the same station as Marwan, where they meet. They exchange pleasantries as they wait in the corridor, well, actually they exchange insults which pass for pleasantries for just about everyone here poses as aggressively as possible, and something between them clicks, leaving him to give her his phone number: an invitation to meet.
In secret, of course, as if they were found out by the other respective gang members they would be subjected to all sorts of violent retribution, not because they have insulted or attacked anyone, but the opposite, they fell in love. It was indicative of this toxic world directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Falah depicted that actually being nice to somebody was regarded as the worst kind of behaviour in their little strata of society, as alternatively beating someone up, or going even further in your violence, was the honourable thing to do and rewarded with respect from your gang. That the directors had researched this milieu beforehand led you to believe it was fairly accurate, and that was a problem.
The basic plot was lifted from that design classic Romeo and Juliet as you may have gathered, though not stylised as the Baz Luhrman take on the tale was, though that too made the setting street gang culture, this was more realistic if not entirely averse to falling back on melodrama. Abel Ferrara's China Girl might be a more accurate comparison, though there were examples of updates of the Shakespeare play from all over the world, and they tended to set them in locations of urban violence too. No matter where it was, this was a story that never ended well, not with these trappings at least, which could at least prompt the characters to see the error of their ways and renounce the poisonous atmosphere of their culture, which was not something you saw much of in this case.
What were we left with? A grinding yarn of crushing dejection, as if there was any hope for these people, assuming they were based on real life individuals to whatever extent, then the directors failed to find any, or nothing worth mentioning at any rate. Look at the women and girls here, having to go along with the toughest demeanour possible to survive, but that doesn't stop the threat of rape, gang rape especially, hanging over their heads when they somehow transgress the code, or even have to pay the price for someone else's unwritten rule-breaking. It got so that aside from a couple of understanding authority figures that the only instance of anyone treating anyone else with kindness or decency was when Marwan and Mavela were alone together and could express their love without fear of recriminations hanging over them, though that fear was justified. It may have been well-made, but it was deeply difficult to enjoy, leaving you wondering how helpful this was to play out these based in truth stories when there was nothing to offer succour to those of us who wanted, well, not so much a happy ending, but the feeling that there was something positive being done to save these souls who resisted even the slightest assistance. Music by Hannes de Maeyer.