Don’t be misled by the title: this Les Mis is anything but a singalong. French rising star Ladj Ly draws upon the title and setting of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, but the social ills he’s dealing with are brought straight to the present day — with thrilling results.

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature (not that anything this year stood a chance against Parasite), Les Misérables takes place in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil. Like other some other French banlieues, Montfermeil is notorious for its strained relationship with the French government and police in particular — a dynamic Ly ambitiously toys with here.

The film follows Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a new recruit to Montfermeil’s police department assigned to patrol with two department veterans, Chris (the film’s co-writer Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga, who gives the best of three strong central performances). Both Chris and Gwada are jaded by their time on the force, a feeling Chris has transmuted into a mistrust for the population and a penchant for abuse of power. While Gwada’s demeanor is more conciliatory, Ruiz — and the audience along with him — is still taken aback by the bracing lifestyle of both Montfermeil’s cops and its residents.

Les Misérables‘s plot has an unfortunate tendency to wind, but most of the film’s punch comes from a problematic encounter the three cops have with a group of kids at around halfway through the film. While many of the movie’s moment-to-moment scenes are effective, it’s this confused pacing that ultimately ends up holding in back. The film’s lack of consequential action in its first half gives the whole thing a “slice-of-life” air that is immediately taken away once the plot swings into action. The result is a film that seems like it can’t decide what it wants to be and one that suffers for it.

The film’s sheer power does quite a bit to make up for this. Ly employs his camera with a remarkable sense of neutrality, letting the audience observe and take stock of his character as they see fit. The result is something that, in its best moments, borders on documentary — near the film’s end, there is an extraordinary sequence showing the final moments in the day of many of its characters. This brief, god’s-eye view of Montfermeil implicitly gives a humanity to its residents that many action-focused films might not be interested in doling out.

Most viewers will be captivated by the film’s explosive finale. While it is undoubtedly powerful, there is something weirdly artificial about its construction that calls into question the reality we’ve previously witnessed — Ly seems to give up some of the movie’s sincerity in the name of sheer emotional power. While this may hold the film back slightly in some ways, it makes its fundamental thesis that much more powerful.

Anyone who walks away from Les Misérables will know immediately that Ly is an exceptional director, but what’s most impressive about his work here is how it turns messaging into truly engaging cinema. In hindsight, Ly is clearly trying to get a few points across. When you’re watching his movie, though, all you can focus on is the action onscreen — and, oh, what action it is.