Disaffected youth is a currency that filmmakers never tire of trying to exchange in hopes of finding a theme that suits their world view. Everybody was young once, and if experience counts for a lot when telling a story, the coming-of-age tale has built-in advantages. In this small Canadian film, the director is a man and the protagonist an 18-year-old girl living through that magic hour of adolescence, from the last month of high school through to the end of the subsequent summer. Leonie (Karelle Tremblay) is typically skeptical about everything in the ways of cinematic teen heroines. She bristles whenever an adult confronts her with her future. “I’m only 18,” she spits back. “I have plenty of time to decide.” Her bad attitude is manifest right off the bat when she bails on a restaurant meal in her honor hosted by her mother (Marie-France Marcotte) and stepfather (Francois Papineau). She pretends to use the rest room and then walks out the door and catches a bus.
The fact that mom doesn’t seem particularly surprised by this rude act indicates Leonie’s personality has been brittle for some time. She barely keeps her contempt for her stepfather—a radio commentator who rails against environmentalists and anti-capitalists—in check, and doesn’t really have any close friends to speak of. While hanging out with a group of associates at a 50s-themed restaurant in her small Quebec town, one friend makes fun of a bearded guy eating alone at the counter, picking up on his couture of flannel shirt, rocker T-shirt, and blue jeans. “What’s life like in 1985?” she teases him. Leonie, however, is intrigued, probably because she seems to think the modern world sucks and that things were better before she was born.
The throwback in question, a thirty-something slacker named Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant), becomes Leonie’s confidant. He teaches guitar and lives in his mother’s basement. One of Leonie’s projects for her aimless summer is to take guitar lessons from Steve, and he proves to be a gifted musician, which prompts the inevitable question: Why isn’t he playing in a band, making a living from a skill he obviously enjoys? Steve has no ready answer; something about being averse to the big city and a personality that doesn’t accommodate itself to group dynamics. In essence, he’s the other temperamental side to Leonie’s misanthropy—less caustic, more resigned to life without drama. And for a while, their easy relationship forms the core of the film’s sensibility. Writer-director Sebastien Pilote brings up the obvious sexual tension between them a few times without letting it get anywhere, and what he misses in potential drama he makes up for with naturalism that is refreshing without being doctrinnaire. In fact, the movie’s lack of emotional payoffs is what makes it so strangely appealing. There is only one scene of violence in the film, and it comes at the expense of property not people. The most fraught relationship is not that between Leonie and Steve but rather between Leonie and her birth father (Luc Picard), a former union leader whose advocacy for the local paper mill ended in failure and forced him to leave town. He now works seasonally “up north” on an undesignated project. Leonie has formed the opinion that his stepfather had something to do with his exile, but the truth ends up being much more problematic, and Leonie can’t cope with the way it makes her feel.
That Leonie’s fate is no more certain at the end of the movie than it was at the start is another risky gambit that Pilote pulls off with disarming ease. Generally speaking, fiction films that attempt to address life as it’s really lived come off as either pretentious or just plain boring, especially when the protagonist is an 18-year-old “brat.” The Fireflies Are Gone is not nearly as entertaining or emotionally satisfying as Lady Bird, but it’s more credible and the lessons it teaches more affecting.
In French. Opens June 15 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
The Fireflies Are Gone home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Corporation ACPAV Inc. 2018