“Do you always believe the kids?,” asks an old man accused of raping his granddaughter. In Poliss , we follow the impassioned members of the Child Protection Unit in northern Paris, an arm of law enforcement almost all would agree walks on water. And yet while mono-monikered co-writer/director Maïwenn’s hectic, culled-from-the-records drama is in awe of its selfless intentions, she remains fiercely ambivalent, even skeptical, of its methods. Even given our characters’ seasoned talents, the truth proves often elusive: The young alleged victims, let alone their accused perpetrators, could be exaggerating, if not lying, and more than once we watch interrogations in which it’s impossible to tell someone’s innocence or guilt.
Parts of Polisse —whose childlike misspelling is intentional, although the original French title is actually “Poliss”—recall the maddening battles for certainty in the courtroom doc The 10th District Court: Moments of Trials. There is no main plot to Polisse, just a series of cases: A temperamental mother who casually blurts out that she jerks off her young son because it helps him sleep better; a pedo father (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) blithely sure his wealthy connections will keep him from prison. Raiding a trailer park of Romanian immigrants and “rescuing” their kids from horrors means making a pile of kids parentless, while a boy genuinely worries about the fate of the gym teacher who abused him, asking why he’s going to prison and not a hospital.
Good deeds can have tragic repercussions, and Polisse ’s steely gaze, limning the difficulty of justice, is enough to atone for some wobbly defects. The toll of trying to bring true justice is one of the things that has weighed upon the film’s central unit. (“Can’t we just do a gang rape?” pleads a character about to interrogate a deadbeat mom, in a moment of dark comedy.) Dwelling on characters would seem to provide ballast for an episodic structure, but their home lives—where everyone’s either divorced, divorcing or prone to volcanic marital spouts—prove redundant, and the budding romance between an officer (Joeystarr) and a fresh-faced photographer (Maïwenn herself, best known, oddly, as the tentacled blue diva from The Fifth Element) is just stock. Luckily, such distractions are rare, and Polisse , like its characters, functions best when in work mode.