Review: Eastern Boys


Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

Eastern Boys opens on a group of adolescents at the Gare du Nord railway station in Paris. The camera observes them from a distance, cinema verite-style, as they wander around, sometimes in groups, sometimes separate. One young boy catches the eye of a security guard and pretends to be the son or sibling of an older teenager. A slightly older youth tries to slyly seduce a man and lure him somewhere more private. At times, they are lively and spontaneous, while at other moments, their actions seem purposeful and organized. Is this a gang? A group of prostitutes? Con artists?

They turn out to be all of the above. One middle-aged businessman, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), propositions a young Ukrainian immigrant named Marek (Kirill Emelyanov) and sets up a meeting at his home the following day. It turns out to be a trap: in an intense, drawn-out sequence, Marek’s buddies show up and gradually impose their will, partying and stealing whatever they like. They’re led by Boss (Daniil Vorobyov), a quick-tempered young man who rules by intimidation and is prone to violence.

It’s a fairly straightforward home invasion set-up, but what makes writer-director Robin Campillo’s sophomore feature so intriguing is how it carefully subverts expectations. What begins as a slow-burn thriller gradually transforms into a moving, erotic character study. Daniel is so withdrawn from the rest of society – he appears to have no friends or social life – that he almost seems relieved to be deceived; uninvited, threatening guests are more welcome than none at all. The film finds its footing when Marek returns to apologize and the two begin a sexual relationship that morphs into something approaching intimacy. The line between client and friend become blurred, and the power dynamics constantly fluctuate. Daniel may be desperate for companionship, but that doesn’t change the fact that his bond with Marek started with a lie.

The film hinges on the lead performances by Rabourdin and Emelyanov, and neither actor disappoints. There’s a lot of nuance to navigate in the scenes between Daniel and Marek, yet they strike the perfect balance, communicating layers of distrust while never sacrificing the foundational chemistry that drew them together. Their relationship may be messy, but in Campillo’s hands, it feels earned—quite a feat given its beginnings.

Campillo’s true talent lies in being ambiguous without being vague, keeping his perspective distant and trusting the audience to follow along. Much of the real drama in Eastern Boys occurs in silence, simmering beneath mundane actions and slight changes in tone. The fact that he opens the film at the Gare du Nord reveals his primary thematic concern: alienation. The characters in Eastern Boys have no place to call home and no clear destination. They are undocumented immigrants from war-torn nations, forced to survive in an unfamiliar land. Even Daniel feels lost in transition, wandering aimlessly after a failed relationship, searching for connection.

The only misstep comes at the end, when the focus suddenly shifts to a supporting character, revealing unexpected pathos. It’s a gutsy move that unfortunately feels forced and rushed, as if Campillo really wants to hammer home that this film is about the capital-I Issue of immigration rather than just a simple character study. That character study is so well-crafted, however; the underlying themes are already clearly communicated. Daniel and Marek may not fully understand each other, but we do, and that’s what matters.