The feats of Yuri Gagarin – the first human in space – transcended Cold War rivalries. There’s a statue of the Soviet cosmonaut down by Admiralty Arch in London, and in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine, a whole housing estate is named after him – or was. Cité Gagarine was demolished in 2020, but it’s central to this unusual blend of realist drama and sci-fi fantasia, where life and dreams mix in strange and soulful ways.
Alseni Bathily is Youri, a Black teenager whose mum has left and who lives alone on the estate. He finds can-kicking pals in Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and Romany girl Diana (Lynn Khoudri). But his first love is stargazing, daydreaming of journeys to match those of his Russian astronaut hero. First-time filmmakers Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh realise those reveries with documentary footage and disembodied audio of space travel that begin a slow blurring of the boundaries between life and imagination.
Bathily is terrific as Youri, a young man with nowhere to go but up. He furtively builds his own space-aged world in his now-abandoned block – something akin to a set in Silent Running – as it is gutted around him. The two co-directors bathe it in ultraviolet light (amusingly, Youri’s UV lamps draw in the local weed dealer, moth-like), all but decoupling Gagarine from gravity with fluid camera moves and trippy transitions. If the ending is signposted, Youri’s earthbound journey to the stars offers a stirring escape from an unjust reality. Like his Russian sorta-namesake, he’s a hero we can all get behind.
In UK cinemas Sep 24.