‘Wild Diamond’ Review: Social Realist Influencer Drama Is Frustrating and Familiar Despite a Compelling Lead

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The heart of “Wild Diamond,” the only debut to play in competition at Cannes this year, is a story we’ve seen before. A young woman living in grim-to-disappointing circumstances has dreams of stardom, and her journey toward fame takes her to dark places, physically and emotionally. You can find versions of this scenario in Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” to Ninja Thyberg’s “Pleasure.” Director Agathe Riedinger’s debut feature has little new to say about the pursuit of fame and the toll it takes despite a truly unique heroine in Liane, played with a strange and alluring distance by Malou Khebizi. It’s only a shame that the film does her a disservice in leaving the world around her underdeveloped.

The 19-year-old Liane has mastered the art of making herself up for the internet. In one sequence, we watch as she gets ready. She contours her face with precision. She places a cap around her lips to make them plumper. She squeezes her feet into towering heels embossed with jewels plucked off T-shirts in the mall where she is shoplifting. This all comes in handy when she gets a chance to audition for a television show called “Miracle Island.” We never learn much about the show — it’s “Love Island”-esque and shoots in Miami — or the casting process. In one take, the camera holds on Liane as she stands before a representative from the production company, answering questions about what procedures she has had done. (She saved money from her waitressing job to enhance her breasts.) The woman tells her they don’t want “goody goodies.” Liane swears she’s not, but her discomfort maybe reveals something different. It’s the best sequence in the film.

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Liane has done everything in her power to make her body appealing for selfies and thirst traps. She desires the love and even the hate she finds on social media — comments appear on screen in a block of artfully designed text — but when it comes to actual romance, or sex, she is at a loss. When one of her friends calls her a virgin in an early scene, you doubt it. By the end, you’re sure that’s the case. Liane uses the trappings of sexuality to achieve her goals of power, but Riedinger makes it clear how uncomfortable she is in her own skin.

It’s a dichotomy enhanced by Khebizi’s performance. The actor straddles the balance between Liane’s timidness and ferociousness. She wears the skin of a hyper-sexualized star — she aims to be the French Kim Kardashian — while nevertheless feeling stifled by not only her circumstances but her own brain. You see the kind of character she can be on a TV series: the rabble-rouser, getting into fights with girlfriends. And yet you realize the insecurity driving her every move. She’s maniacal in her quest without realizing how isolated it makes her.

‘Wild Diamond’
‘Wild Diamond’

Riedinger, who also writes, first introduces Liane’s daily life in the South of Frances, where she sells stolen goods, goes clubbing with her friends, and watches over her younger sister, living at home with her mother, who at first is rarely seen. The audition for “Miracle Island” is a temptation dangled in front of her. And once that happens, she acts as if she is immediately already cast. Yet Riedinger is not interested in the process of reality-show casting. Instead, it’s what happens between the audition and answer that comprises the narrative arc of “Wild Diamond.” Unfortunately, the film ambles narratively to a conclusion that feels like the start of a more interesting movie.

More unfortunate is a quasi-romance that occupies some of Liane’s time with a boy (Idir Azougli) she knew from foster care when she was 13. He’s now a biker who considers himself her knight in shining armor, doling out lame lines she seems occasionally taken by, even if she’s not all that interested in him. It’s a wan courtship that only proves engaging when it’s revealing Liane’s personal doubts. Similarly lackluster is how the film teases out the conflict between Liane and her mother (Andréa Bescond), a ne’er-do-well so behind on rent she’s on the verge of getting her family evicted from their home, living off the largesse of strangers. We never really get to the root of their tension beyond Liane’s aversion to her mother bringing men home. Their anger at one another is reduced to pat rebellious child-irresponsible mother dynamics.

What “Wild Diamond” lacks in drive it has in look, thanks to cinematography from Noé Bach, who shoots in Academy ratio, ever the parlance of the modern-day social realist tradition (including Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” which this film owes a great deal to). There’s a dreamlike quality to Liane’s world as the movie spells out her magical thinking in cinematic terms. But the screenplay itself fails to get inside Liane’s head as much as Khebizi and the film’s visual style do. You leave feeling like you only scratched the surface of who Liane is. You want more for her as much as she wants more from her small life.

Grade: B-

“Wild Diamond” premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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