My review of controversial award-winning “Eastern Boys” at 2013 Toronto International Film Festival

On Tuesday, September 10, 2013 I attended the highly anticipated North American Premiere of Robin Campillo's Eastern Boys at the Toronto International Film Festival. The screening took place at the Scotiabank Theatre. The film was a selection in the Contemporary World Cinema section.

New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal has long been known as a magnet for homeless kids looking for a handout, or even a warm bed. Many end up turning tricks on the street to get by. Cities across the globe have their equivalents, and in Paris it’s the Gare du Nord train station. Boys from Eastern Europe are drawn there for the promise of a better life. Some end up in porn. But, as in New York, many become hustlers and are fodder for (usually) older men looking for a quickie. One of those men, Daniel (legendary French actor Oliver Rabourdin) spies a group of youngsters milling about on the street. They could be underage, but who knows (or cares)? One “teen” in particular, Marek (played by Russian newcomer Kirill Emelyanov) catches his eye. Daniel is looking for a casual encounter, but ends up getting much more than he bargained for.       

Robin Campillo's career has been spent primarily as an editor and writer – this is only his second feature as a director. He edited and/or co-wrote six features for Laurent Cantet, including L'Emploi du temps, Vers le sud, and Foxfire. Campillo won the 2008 César Award (France’s equivalent to the Oscar) for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Class. Coincidentally, producer Hugues Charbonneau also produced TIFF selection Salvation Army, which was the very next screening I attended after this. Eastern Boys won the prestigious Orizzonti Award for Best Film when it debuted at the Venice International Film Festival just prior to arriving in Toronto.

The movie rises or falls on the authenticity of Daniel and Marek's enigmatic relationship. This is Rabourdin’s 45th feature and only the second for young Emelyanov, but their onscreen chemistry belies that difference in experience. The discomfort and awkwardness of their initial encounters is palpable, as are the surprising changes that takes place as the narrative twists and turns. Protagonists change position, and we aren't sure who to root for. There is a sizable supporting cast but the movie effectively has only one other lead, Danil Vorobyev as Boss, a Fagan-type who’s the leader of this pack of young vagabonds and modern day marauders. Vorobyev doesn’t want to lose his star player.

Eastern Boys was shot in widescreen format by iconic French cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, with almost 70 movies to her credit. Despite its Paris area location, exteriors have the cool, blue/gray color palette typical of gritty Eastern European settings (maybe a conceit to the boys) with a reliance on available light. In stark contrast, the intimate camerawork in the love scenes is dominated by intense close-ups and a warm palette with a soft amber glow. Lapoirie primarily uses two shots and tight facial close-ups of Daniel or Marek. There is no denying the steamy eroticism in these sequences despite their deliberate non-explicitness (more on that below).           

Campillo’s preference for extended takes with little dialogue is apparent from the first scene. More can be said with a furtive glance here, a shy smile there, and body language that moves from tentative to tenacious throughout the course of the film. The pacing is consistent, with a rhythm echoing the life of the city. Paris is a relaxed, wine and cheese in the afternoon kind of town, and the narrative reflects that. The soundtrack, from first-time composer Arnaud Rebotini, similarly stays out of the way. In keeping with the relatively quiet milieu of the film, his score is sparse and light. The delicate nature of the film in its look and style demands some patience on the part of the viewer. It’s over two hours long and, while there’s some third act intrigue, this is not an action/adventure movie. But there’s enough tension and revelation for audiences to stay engaged.        

Rabourdin and Emelyanov spent a good deal of time in rehearsals (with pants on) to be comfortable enough for their extensive sex scenes once the camera started rolling. Although Eastern Boys is not explicit, it earned the most restrictive rating of R from the Ontario Ratings Board – "Restricted to persons 18 years of age or over," equivalent to NC-17 in America – usually reserved for films with extensive frontal nudity and unsimulated sex. Why it got this rating here in Toronto is beyond me, although the cynic might say it has to do with the gender of the participants. And although both actors agreed in advance to do and show anything required for the scenes, Campillo decided, in the end, not to show any nudity as he feared the audience would be distracted by focusing on what might or might not be seen on camera. This isn’t soft porn and it was a bold decision on Campillo’s part to make sure of that.

Ultimately, Eastern Boys is a more sophisticated European take on the Gus Van Sant/Larry Clark coming-of-age tale. Marek’s plight is a common one -- he’s torn between two worlds. The boy needs a mentor, a father figure, and he has choices. We know Boss wants to keep him in his camp. After all, he brought him to France and helped make him a man. We know what (who) Daniel wants. But it’s Marek’s decision to make. Or so we think. After all, he’s the kid, the innocent and vulnerable illegal immigrant. Eastern Boys is a parent/child intergenerational drama turned on its head, with controversial themes, provocative ideas, even forbidden ones. More than anything, though, it’s a deeply heartfelt story of love and loss that asks many more questions than it answers, as any good work of art should.


NOTE: See my photos of the North American Premiere Q&A. I selected Eastern Boys for my Toronto International Film Festival Top Picks. It was produced by Les Films de Pierre with support from France’s Centre National de la Cinématographie, Région Aquitaine, and Conseil Général des Pyrénées-Atlantiques, in association with Cofinova 8. Films Distribution is worldwide sales agent. It does not yet have distribution in North America.

The official teaser trailer is posted below along with a video of the post-screening Q&A. A set of stills follows underneath the videos. There are no spoilers in the teaser trailer and it is not explicit but does have some NSFW gestures and language. The Q&A video, of course, necessarily contains spoilers.

Eastern Boys teaser trailer (2013)

They come from all over Eastern Europe: Russia, Romania, Chechnya. They are Eastern boys. The oldest appear no more than…
  • Video Release: September 15, 2013
  • Length: 1.33 min
  • Views: 1107

TIFF13 - Eastern Boys - Q&A with Robin Campillo (1 of 2)

Q&A with writer/director Robin Campillo for his film Eastern Boys at Scotiabank Theatre, Toronto, on Tuesday, Sept 10, 2013....
  • Video Release: September 11, 2013
  • Length: 7.22 min
  • Views: 127

TIFF13 - Eastern Boys - Q&A with Robin Campillo (2 of 2)

  • Video Release: September 11, 2013
  • Length: 10.58 min
  • Views: 65


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at

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