Dheepan, from director Jacques Audiard, opens in a Sri Lankan refugee camp, where a woman trolls the tents in search of a child - any child that she can claim as hers - and where a man, a stranger, waits in the camp office, posing as her husband. The makeshift couple hope to gain political asylum in Europe, far from the trauma of civil war and its aftermath.
And so this pretend family, traveling on the passport of a dead man, finds a home on the outskirts of Paris, in government housing that is grim and graffiti-covered, the Baltimore projects of The Wire transplanted to the banlieues.
They struggle to build a life. Dheepan, formerly a fighter with the Tamil Tigers back in his homeland, gets a job as a caretaker for the complex. (He's played with singular soulfulness by Antonythasan Jesuthasan, himself a veteran of the Sri Lanka conflict.)
Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) assumes the role of wife and mother, albeit warily, uncertain. The 9-year-old, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), is enrolled in school. She is quickest to learn the language.
Dheepan, then, is a story of survival, of assimilation - and of alienation.
Although his protagonists hail from South Asia, not the Middle East and North Africa, Audiard puts a human face on the current refugee crisis across Europe.
If the French government's social structure is designed to accommodate, to some extent, the immigrant underclass, French society at large proves less welcoming. Drug gangs rule. The police don't even bother to show.
Audiard has a knack for stories about outcasts, about people trying to make their way across hostile landscapes.
In the 2001 thriller Read My Lips, it's a deaf mute struggling to communicate. In 2005's The Beat My Heart Skipped, it's a lowlife real estate broker with a gift for the piano (yes, a remake of James Toback's Fingers). In 2009's A Prophet, it's an Algerian criminal working his way up the gangland ladder, first in a French prison and then on the streets. In 2012's Rust and Bone, it's a woman (the great Marion Cotillard) suddenly an amputee, trying to find a reason to keep living.
Dheepan, winner of the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is strongest in its empathic depiction of everyday challenges and triumphs - the cleaning and fixing and minding of a building and its grounds; the possibility of a real bond between the faux husband, wife, and daughter; the inroads made to gain trust, to belong.
The final third of Audiard's drama falls into crime-drama mode. It is tense and violent. But even if it feels true, given Dheepan's history with the Tamil Tigers, it also feels a little beside the point.
Dheepan has already made its point - a tough and sobering and jolting one.
3 1/2 (Out of four stars)