Former videographer and documentarian Ladj Ly’s debut fiction feature Les Miserables paints a bleak picture of the future of minority communities on the margins and on the brink in urban societies. This radical update of Victor Hugo’s classic nineteenth-century novel about social injustice snagged the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019.

Hailing from, and still residing in, a troubled commune on the outskirts of Paris, the Malian-origin Ladj Ly focuses on the lives of the disaffected populace comprising diverse races, ethnicities and religions. Ly works from a compact 102-minute script co-written along with two collaborators, including one of the lead actors, Alexis Manenti. Manenti portrays the leader of the anti-crime squad that routinely patrols a volatile locality.

The younger generation, in particular, represents a vibrant subculture even as they drift aimlessly and occasionally resort to violence while attempting to break free from their oppressors on the police force. The simmering cauldron of tension boils over when an impish 12-year-old loner named Issa (the wise-beyond-his-years Issa Perica) steals a lion cub from a travelling circus.

The threat of an all-out gang war looms unless the pint-sized animal is traced and returned to its rightful owners. In the melee that ensues, Issa is shot and grievously wounded by one of the lawmen.

The incident is recorded by a drone operated by a friend of the victim. Initially, it seems that the issue has been resolved peacefully, but it culminates in a protracted confrontation between the incensed kids and the policemen trio.

Les Miserables (2019).

To his credit, Ladj Ly ensures that there are no clear-cut heroes or villains as the narrative winds to a close. The incendiary final scene – a do-or-die face-off between Issa and the conflicted new cop (Damien Bonnard) – is followed by a quote from Hugo’s novel that asserts, “Remember this, my friends. There is no such thing as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators”.

Perhaps more than ever before, it’s time to heed the author’s words of wisdom.