Aly is a young asylum seeker in Paris. He arrived in Paris from Guinea and is waiting for his paperwork to go through the bureaucracy that is the French government. But in the meanwhile, life goes on, and after getting dressed and psyching himself up, he heads out to a party, where he hopes to impress Mathilde, the woman he has a crush on.
On the way, he waits in line for a meal being distributed to other refugees like him. But when he loses his place in line taking a phone call from his crush and gets into a scuffle with the police monitoring the crowd, he realizes that he can't easily escape the reality of his tenuous situation.
Written and directed by Thomas Wood, this short drama is a slice-of-life portrait of a young refugee in France, putting us in the shoes of someone who is an outsider and uncertain of his place in the social firmament. Aly is highly relatable, as a young man who wants to connect with a woman he fancies, and he's sweetly nervous about impressing her at a party later in the night. It's a hopeful romantic situation that many can relate to, and the film's visual naturalism with its handheld camera and offhand editing style gives us the sense of an ordinary life unfurling before our eyes. But the storytelling is alert to how someone's political and social realities -- often invisible to the outside eye -- can set Aly apart emotionally and culturally.
The film resonates with a quiet but powerful authenticity, both in the matter-of-fact documentary-like style and in its casting of lead actor Mamadou Diallo, who the director met as a volunteer at a non-profit distributing food to refugees. Diallo plays Aly first and foremost as a young man with relatable aspirations and hopes -- as someone with a crush on someone and trying to take it to the next stage. He's likable and appealing, his first scenes possessing an endearing vulnerability and excitement.
But as he heads out into the night and stops by for his meal distribution, things feel immediately more dangerous as he waits in line with other anxious refugees. As a tense situation develops, Aly realizes that he isn't "just" a carefree young man flush with anticipation and possibility. He's someone struggling to establish himself in a new country, with an uncertain future and many obstacles to overcome -- someone that some are wary of or look down upon.
Diallo ably portrays how this realization chips away at Aly's confidence and hopefulness, even as he finally makes it to the party and receives a warm welcome from his crush and other partygoers. But despite the conviviality, Aly is an outsider in this society, not yet accepted. The final image of "Aly" is both simple and profound in how it captures the loneliness that befalls its title character, an isolation made all the more poignant for its social setting. Even when surrounded by friendly people, Aly is alone, without a solid foundation -- and the comfort of a safety net if he stumbles.