They teem around Paris’ sprawling Gare du Nord train station, teenage boys dressed in flashy leather jackets and T-shirts, making suggestive eye contact with middle-aged men while running away from uniformed police officers. One of them, the young, elvish-looking Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), strikes up a conversation with Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), a well-heeled 50-something who gives the kid his home address and tells him to show up there the next day for a fee of 50 euros (“I do everything,” boasts Marek, who is Ukrainian but speaks broken French).
But when Daniel answers the knock on his door at the appointed time, he is greeted instead by two older boys, then two more, and finally an entire gang of overgrown urchins — Russian exiles who not-so-vaguely threaten Daniel, raid his liquor cabinet, crank up the music and start dancing in his living room. The befuddled man plays along, trying to mask his profound humiliation by pretending to be enjoying himself while this band of merry, techno-loving thieves clean out his posh apartment, stealing everything from his TV to his artwork right in front of his face.
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The first of four chapters in Robin Campillo’s quasi-thriller Eastern Boys is its best, introducing us to an invisible world of male hustlers, undocumented refugees from Eastern Europe who go unnoticed by everyone except their clientele. These adolescent scamps know how to put strangers at false ease with their innocent faces and gentle, playful demeanor. Although the potential for violence is palpable, Daniel manages to escape unharmed from the harrowing home invasion. He is visibly relieved, even though all his valuables are gone, and seems to chalk up the experience to a lesson learned (among the many things the film refuses to do is to verbalize the inner state of its characters, relying instead on performance to key you in on what they’re thinking).
Then, the next day, Marek shows up, sheepishly apologizing for having set up Daniel but still willing to carry out his agreement. Daniel agrees, throwing a few bucks at the kid who completely checks out of the situation as his client gropes him and engages in impersonal, vacant, mechanical sex. Once they’re done, Marek quickly dresses and leaves, his face registering nothing but blankness. But he returns the day after that. And the one after that. Gradually, he and Daniel develop an unusual relationship that blurs the line between father and son and prostitute and john.
Thematically reminiscent (although far less graphic) of last year’s Stranger by the Lake, another French cautionary tale about the perils of anonymous gay sex, Eastern Boys slowly transforms into a far different movie than its first half-hour promised. Campillo, who previously co-wrote the screenplay for the 2008 Oscar-nominated drama The Class, is much less interested in the sexual orientation of his characters than he is in the pack mentality that develops among this crew of undocumented refugees, who have been granted temporary asylum by social services at a hotel, where they take up an entire floor and operate in limbo, stranded from their home countries but unwilling to adopt a new one.
The movie argues that their lawless, selfish mentality is a by-product of having grown up in war-stricken countries such as Chechnya, where they lived through horrors that permanently skewed their moral compasses. As Daniel takes an increasingly parental interest in Marek, Eastern Boys explores whether these lost boys are damaged beyond repair or are still capable of being saved.
Cast: Olivier Rabourdin, Kirill Emelyanov, Danil Vorobyev, Edea Darcque.
Director: Robin Campillo.
Screenwriters: Gilles Marchand, Robin Campillo.
A First Run Features release. Running time: 129 minutes. In English, French and Russian with English subtitles. Vulgar language, explicit sex, nudity, strong adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.