Growing Pains: Two Teen Films at the 71st Locarno Film Festival
Several directors competing for the Golden Leopard at this year’s Locarno Film Festival made films about the loss of innocence and teen angst. These works capture the moment in time when childhood’s idealism becomes adulthood’s adversity as a defining event for shaping characters. Dominga Sotomayor’s Best Director-winning Too Late to Die Young (2018) and Philippe Lesage’s Genesis (2018) excel at depicting the vulnerability and tumultuous feelings of young hearts in unique ways. If Sotomayor employs the isolated environment of a communal settlement to shape the protagonist and her experiences with first love, Lesage conveys these feelings through multiple, fragmented perspectives — feminine and masculine, heterosexual and gay — of different characters. The films share the adolescent confusion and vulnerability at pivotal moments in one’s life when transitioning into an adult feels cruel and painful.
The enthusiasm and expectations of first love are typically seen in idyllic settings in feel-good movies like My Girl (1991), The Notebook (2004), or Boyhood (2014), and to a point, Too Late to Die Young seems to follow that formula, representing life for some kids living in a carefree artsy commune outside Santiago, Chile. Based on the director’s experience of growing up in such a place, the film captures the interwoven stories of teens Sofía and Lucas (Antar Machado) and ten-year-old Clara (Magdalena Tótoro). Sotomayor pays little attention to adults; their interventions amount to debating living conditions and a minimal involvement in their kids’ education. In turn, they are left to discover the world freely, prematurely exposed to issues and notions they shouldn’t dwell on. The main focus is on androgynous-looking Sofía, a girl ahead of her peers, including her friend Lucas, who smokes, already drives at 16, plans to move out, and is infatuated with an older guy. Being raised by a taciturn father, Sofía observes the adults’ efforts to inhabit an ideal space with mature acuity and looks up to her mother, a musician living in the city. With a rather sensory approach, the emotions are transmitted through small gestures and a use of the gaze. The camerawork expresses the interpersonal dynamics by revealing secretive smiles and following the direction of looks. Lucas stares at Sofía — who treats him with a brotherly affection — only to discover how she languidly glances at Ignacio (Matías Oviedo), an older guy from outside the commune who often visits their group of friends. At the same time, little Clara follows Sofía’s fling with Ignacio with curiosity and jealousy as she learns about the world through the elder’s experiences as a silent observer.
Played by newcomer Demian Hernández, Sofía shows a self-confident stare of her blossoming ladylike appeal, but she is not a temptress and she is never sexualized. In a community where houses lack walls and anybody can break in, the limits between exterior and interior are dissolved, meaning Sofía’s character is built free from predetermined notions of femininity and masculinity. In this habitat, desire is often expressed through musical moments, be it in live performances or listening to music. Her idol is Sinéad O’Connor, whose boyish looks she confidently imitates with her short haircut. In a karaoke scene that she turns into a corny declaration of love, Sofía carries herself with confidence and wears her heart on her sleeve without fear of ridicule or of being hurt. A particular scene reminded me of Shireen Seno’s recent Nervous Translation (2017), a film structured similarly as a memory piece about identity and seen through the eyes of a young girl. Like Seno’s protagonist Yael, who nurtures her yearning for her departed father by listening to his recorded voice, Sofía also spends the night obsessively listening to tapes of her mother in a heart aching attempt to evade the present and to restore the image of a complete family. Similarly episodic, both films show a girl trying to understand adult dynamics — although Shireen Seno eventually plunges into the imaginary world while Sotomayor favors naturalistic filming.
Even if the film is supposedly set after the fall of Augusto Pinochet, Sotomayor doesn’t register historical facts but records emotions, specifically those of Sofía and her friends. Although joyful and carefree, the atmosphere is deeply filled with the anxieties and expectations of beginnings. Sofía and Lucas don’t exactly know how their lives would evolve in or outside the commune. They both show an urge to be independent without really knowing what to do with their emancipation. There’s a pent-up tension that adds to the uncertainty that comes with defining themselves. A particular episode demystifies the unspoilt state of youth. In the opening scene, there’s a long tracking shot of a dog following a car and then disappearing into dust. It’s Clara’s first time suffering a loss, and she doesn’t hesitate to regain her dog when she sees it in a far more impoverished family’s courtyard. To Clara, the dog is hers, even if that brings sorrow to another child.
Too Late to Die Young is not a conventional three-act structure narrative. Its rhythm relies on carefully composed scenes, framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, in which people and objects crowd on various levels, leaving the impression of an eventful image even when it cuts to static shots. The warm desaturated color palette contributes to the feeling of suspended time and space, since Sotomayor doesn’t insist on historical markers but on the uncertain period in the characters’ lives. The compact frame contrasts with the concept of the settlement, suggesting that although there are no physical limits for the inhabitants, they are confined to their own nature. Sotomayor’s camera lingers on the ordinary, becoming overwhelmingly melancholic, as if the captured age is ethereal, a feeling also highlighted by the courageous embrace of romantic hits on the soundtrack like Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You,” or the diegetic performance of The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.”
While both films look into the pains of unrequited first love, they employ that experience differently. There is a moment in time when coming of age loses its idyllic aura and innocence is morally corrupted by adulthood. If Too Late to Die Young focuses on how that loss of innocence feels like, Genesis articulates first the consequences and then the causes that lead to this perversion of purity. With a more dynamic narrative, Lesage explores how sexual politics and abuse influence and shape romantic interactions from an early age. Like in Too Late to Die Young, the theme is developed through three young characters: half-siblings Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and Charlotte (Noée Abita), and the smaller Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier). The film opens with one of Guillaume’s notorious representations as he nonchalantly performs and mockingly imitates his teachers in front of his classmates. Standing in front of his peers who approve of him and admire his buffoonery, he enjoys the attention as a compensation for his lack of friends. Smart and perceptive, Guillaume is a nonconformist, contrasting with the stereotype of popular jocks. In the highly competitive testosterone-fueled environment of his boarding school, he draws strength from ridiculing his peers’ weaknesses. He forms an unlikely bond with an athlete, Nicolas, whom he tries to follow in his competitive endeavors, but his efforts are laughably worthless. As a willowy young man who can’t find his place, he despises and is envious of jocks and good-looking boys who seem to have it easier seducing girls. In a skillful party scene, reminding me of the third-wheel protagonist in Joanna Arnow’s “Bad at Dancing” (2015), Guillaume awkwardly roams among flirtatious couples only to find out that there’s no one for him. His frustration, as he tactlessly interrupts his friend Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte) kissing a girl, proves to be out of jealousy. His gesture wasn’t a manifestation of resentment but an unconscious reaction towards his loved one not paying attention to him.
By comparison, Charlotte’s inner life is less portrayed than her brother’s. Lesage mirrors the patriarchal agenda that envisions women as fulfilled and defined by their desirability while men are trained and destined to be leaders with social success. Charlotte focuses on her sentimental life, while Guillaume is driven by the recognition of his achievements and by maintaining his social status. Her expectations and image of an ideal romance shatter when her boyfriend proposes an open relationship. After this initial disappointment, she engages in several relationships with ill-suited guys as the exploration of her sexuality turns into a game of who gets to break the other’s heart first, unknowingly hurting herself by being too emotionally available. The guys she meets disrespect and mistreat her in numerous ways, taking advantage of her credulity. An early impression would lead us to believe that Lesage is a culprit of the male gaze, sexually objectifying his protagonist and repeatedly showing her breasts. Unlike Sotomayor’s depiction of a discreet charm, Lesage resorts to the character’s sex appeal considered by masculine standards. The director shapes Charlotte as a rather unilateral character, whose only interest to secure a loving partner turns against her and possibly hits rock bottom because she invites the abuses she endures.
Further into the film, Lesage, in actuality, proves to be a fine observer of gender politics and societal pressures who adopts the discourse he’s trying to criticize. When Guillaume publicly confesses his love for his friend and comes out delivering a memorable monologue, his colleagues appreciate him because he was being honest and showed a genuine care for somebody. His self-protective mask falls off. But being fragile and showing sensitivity is unacceptable and triggers aversion in a masculine environment where homophobia starts to manifest; as a consequence of a misunderstanding regarding his sexual intentions, Guillaume is expelled from school. What Lesage tries to prove is that the abuse is much more entrenched than it seems due to preconceptions and stereotypes that are transmitted and perpetuated through education. Charlotte is abused as a result of how women are seen as pieces of meat and her brother is marginalized because he doesn’t comply with typical masculine behavior. Everybody’s favorite, the history teacher also encourages conventional and rather sexist behavior towards women who are objectified to fulfill predatory instincts. In his cynical anecdotes, the teacher casually gives advice on how to win over women who look like models and reduce them to their sexual function.
Two kindred spirits sharing romantic disappointments and the same quest for authentic feelings, Guillaume and Charlotte share a tender moment recalling Catcher in the Rye when Guillaume, like the free-spirited Holden — alike in that both are expelled from school — secretly returns home and lies next to his sister. In a reversed narrative, the last part of the film is revelatory for the siblings’ hardships. Recalling a primordial innocence in an atmosphere rather similar to Sotomayor’s commune, the coda focuses on the pre-teen Felix falling in love with Beatrice in a summer camp. In this part, Lesage gives importance to small gestures as even ingenuous affection is subject to viciousness, for it is human nature to be corrupted by knowledge. An enigmatic tracking shot that serves as an ending — or a beginning for something offscreen — supports his endeavor to save children from losing their innocence and find hope.
Although both films depict teens’ struggle to freely love and be loved without actually knowing how, the filmmaking couldn’t be more different. There’s a remarkable scene in which Sofía takes a bath and the steam coming from the hot water blends with the smoke of her cigarette, representing the mature self she wishes to become with the loss of her virginity. While Sotomayor relies on repetition of shots or of the same mise-en-scène throughout the film, the bathtub scene being itself repeated, Lesage creates continuity from Charlotte’s experience to Guillaume’s by playing the same synth pop track. Moreover, the connection from the siblings’ parallel stories to the innocent romance from the coda is marked by the continual use of the popular song Guillaume performs in class. The faded colors and naturally lit shots seen in Too Late to Die Young differ from Genesis’s abundance of rich colors and high-contrast images. While both films rely on the power of the gaze, Genesis doesn’t shy away from camera movements and direct cuts that are sometimes abrupt, as if mimicking skipped heartbeats. Moreover, pans and zooms reframe within a single shot, constantly redefining the changes in the protagonist’s emotional state. The camera’s trajectory, in fact, recalls Hong Sang-soo’s endeavors to show intentions and desires through watching and being watched. During the second rendition of the aforementioned popular song, the camera moves away from the musicians, pans the audience, zooms on Felix, and then pans again, following his wandering gaze searching for his object of affection.
As the young attempt to define themselves, others constantly define them. While creating emotionally vulnerable individuals, Sotomayor and Lesage effectively capture a fleeting moment: a fall from grace, the suspended time when iniquity digs into our lives.