LILA SAYS — ** — Mohammed Khouas, Vahina Giocante; in French, with English subtitles; not rated, probable R (sex, profanity, vulgarity, violence);.
Chimo, the young Arab Frenchman in Ziad Doueiri's romantic drama "Lila Says," tells us his life is changed when he meets the eponymous Lila, a blond sexpot who, according to him, is hot enough to provoke wars. "This chick could start a jihad," he exclaims. In this respect, Doueiri's second movie recalls the naughty-mindedness of 1998's "West Beirut," his earlier and much better coming-of-age yarn. Otherwise, this is an underdeveloped exercise in carnal awakening that thinks its characters are far more special than they ever prove to be.
Played by Mohammed Khouas, 19-year-old Chimo spends his time doing pretty much nothing with his slothful, troublemaking friends around Marseilles. In a voice-over, he explains that he's more or less better than his buddies, but it's safer to do as losers do. So when they rob an antiques store, he accompanies them. We know Chimo is dreaming of bigger things because while his three pals are smashing windows and looting the display cases, he tamely leafs through the stray books. But when he's given a chance to leave delinquency behind and start a writing career at a school in Paris, he turns it down, insisting it's too expensive for him and his mother to afford.
Then Lila (Vahina Giocante) saunters by with an "I dare you to follow me" look, and he knows he's found his inspiration. ("A dam broke inside me," he coos in his narration.) Lila has just moved to town, and despite living with her possessive aunt, she's given to wearing clingy housedresses with a pair of cowboy boots or an extremely short skirt.
She and Chimo strike up a charged friendship. Lila is also prone to utter the sort of unprintable things that boys tend to tell other boys they've heard girls say. One night when the gang hits the town in the taxi that one of them drives, Chimo even envisions Lila draped on the hood of the car in a slinky red dress. The movie gullibly and unapologetically gives itself over to these kinds of juvenile wishes.
Because all Lila does is talk dirty, it's impossible to regard her as more than the embodiment of a young man's idealization of his first significant infatuation. As it happens, the movie is based on a first-person novel by someone also called Chimo. This might account for why his protagonist emerges untainted and why the girl is less a person than a vague assemblage of come-ons, flirtations and heaving body parts.
Naturally, Lila's relentless nubility makes her a target for sexual predators (yes, it's that kind of movie), and they include Chimo's own friends, about whom Lila has borderline racist things to say. And so the sensual paradise between her and Chimo will crumble, and tragedy will ensue.
I imagine the Lebanese-born filmmaker's aim was to show young Arab men for the flawed humans they are. We hear people say nasty things about Chimo and his friends (we're in post-9/11 territory and Marseilles is notorious for its racial tensions). If one is young enough, Doueiri's ode to recklessness might seem fashionable and true. But he does everyone a disservice by making the young Arabs a band of scarcely feeling heathens.
Lila, meanwhile, is depicted as just a white temptress, and is completely unworthy of our sympathy. This leaves us stuck with poor Chimo, a chap who has made the common mistake of confusing love with lust. The movie is no better. Ruinously, it can't tell the difference between the two, either.
"Lila Says" is rated R for strong sexual content, language and a brief violent image. Running time: 86 minutes.