The opening scenes of Canadian writer-director Jeanne Leblanc’s itchy small-town drama Les Nôtres establish the essentials of the film’s story with admirable efficiency and restraint. (The title translates as Our Own, but U.S. distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories seems to prefer the original French.) The setting is the soothingly nondescript Quebec suburb of Sainte-Adeline, a township small enough that most of the citizenry are on a first-name basis with Mayor Jean-Marc (Paul Doucet). It’s been five years since a freak building collapse took the lives of several locals and gutted the community spiritually. Fortunately, the town seems to have reached a turning point in its mourning. The film opens with a gala celebrating the groundbreaking on a memorial park at the site of the disaster. Jean-Marc and his deputy, Isabelle (Marianne Farley) – who lost her husband in the collapse – have worked diligently to bring this project to fruition, and they are taking the night to finally exhale and enjoy some modest public accolades with their families.
But hold on: This story isn’t about Sainte-Adeline’s lingering grief or its hard-working civil servants. It’s about Isabelle’s secretly troubled 13-year-old daughter, Magalie (Emilie Bierre). That the film is centered on Magalie’s tribulations is apparent from the way that Leblanc crafts these initial scenes at the gala. Although the camera occasionally cuts away to observe other characters, it keeps returning to Magalie, pushing in on her face and watching her reactions closely during the speeches and festivities. Something is roiling inside this girl, something that her calculated attitude of adolescent indifference is doing a poor job of concealing. There are a few minor plot points established in the overheard dialogue, but Bierre’s expressions and Leblanc’s meticulous mise-en-scène convey the sequence’s most essential takeaway: Magalie has a secret. It’s smart filmmaking, but unfortunately Leblanc can’t resist underlining what she conveys so elegantly via implication. The director repeatedly slips a provocative insert shot into this opening scene, an image that makes the source of her young protagonist’s angst more explicit.
Thankfully, this is not a fumble that Leblanc repeats, but it does point to a filmmaker whose choices very occasionally undermine her otherwise impressively virtuosic grasp of the medium. Les Nôtres is a superbly crafted film with a keen psychological sensitivity to small-town dynamics and the agonizing adolescent struggle to assert one’s autonomy. It’s also a feature that doesn’t have much to say on these subjects, other than the obvious: It sucks to be a teenage girl. Like countless kids, Magalie feels hemmed in by stifling parental expectations, manipulative adult predators, and perverse cultural forces that penalize both sexual naiveté and any whiff of sluttiness. Add in her unresolved grief about her father’s death, and it’s easy to see why Magalie might have gravitated toward a mysterious figure she calls Taz. As far as her female peers are concerned, Taz is a sort of “Canadian boyfriend” – a possibly fictional older boy who conveniently attends a distant school. However, there’s clearly a real person on the other end of the sexts that Magalie is furtively exchanging with Taz. When she later collapses during a dance class and is subjected to a battery of medical tests, the scope of this secret relationship is forced into the open. To Isabelle’s shock, a doctor reports that her 13-year-old daughter is pregnant and already well into her second trimester.
Despite Magalie’s anguished reticence about her child’s paternity, Les Nôtres is not particularly concerned with presenting the pregnancy as a mystery for the audience to unravel. Indeed, even modestly attentive viewers will quickly deduce the correct identity of the father, notwithstanding a red herring or two in the screenplay, which was co-written by Leblanc and Judith Baribeau (who also plays the mayor’s wife, Chantel). The filmmakers’ interest lies not in twisty plotting but in capturing the gnawing anxiety of an increasingly out-of-control scenario. To that end, much of the film is focused on Magalie, who defiantly declares that she is going to keep her child, despite that fact that she is visibly wracked with fear, shame, and uncertainty. These emotions only intensify as the film unfolds, in part because of the conflicting pressures she faces from all sides – to say nothing of the vicious way that her classmates turn on both her and Jean-Marc and Chantel’s Mexican-Canadian foster son, Manu, whom rumors quickly peg as the father.
It’s this attentiveness to the insidiously swift way that gossip slithers through a small community – and the futility of attempting to keep secrets in such a place – that most distinguishes Les Nôtres from other dramas about teen pregnancy. While Leblanc’s direction and Bierre’s authentic, slightly inscrutable performance ensure that Magalie remains the center of the story, the film also takes the time to portray how her plight reverberates throughout Sainte-Adeline. Distracted by the crisis at home, Isabelle begins making mistakes at work, eliciting whispers at town hall and throwing her career into jeopardy. Meanwhile, Manu’s stubborn silence about his relationship with Magalie exacerbates Chantel’s insecurities about her suitability as a foster mother. The suspicions swirling around Manu also allow the overwhelmingly White town’s latent racism to bubble to the surface, provoking everything from snide comments to schoolyard fistfights. Even the film’s sound design reflects how the ground is shifting. As Magalie walks her school’s crowded hallways, slut-shaming insults start to rise from the otherwise unintelligible babble of voices. Bigoted jokes creep into the bleacher chatter during Manu’s soccer games. Isabelle finds herself freshly attentive to the conversations of passing teen boys, whose horny utterances (“… I asked her for some nude pics …”) suddenly seem louder.
Leblanc evinces a marvelous knack for widescreen composition, often using medium-wide shots to visually convey character dynamics that the dialogue only expresses indirectly. At times, she also employs a rougher, more intimate style – shallow focus, handheld camera work, underlit interiors – that recalls the work of Danish directors Susanne Bier and Thomas Vinterberg. However, Les Nôtres’ fascination with the widening, colliding ripples of its characters’ choices speaks to the influence of fellow Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan. Indeed, Leblanc captures this interconnectedness in a manner that feels smoother and more seamless than anything that Egoyan has made in the past two decades. Unlike most of the latter director’s works, however, Leblanc’s sophomore feature doesn’t have much in the way of thematic richness. It’s all text and no subtext, which leaves the film ultimately feeling somewhat obvious, notwithstanding its vaguely ambiguous ending. The themes are all right out in the open, and easily digestible by the presumably liberal-minded viewer: sexism and racism are implacable, entitled White men are usually horrible, and being a teenager is an utterly miserable experience, especially for girls. For American viewers of a certain age, the whole thing will feel a little like the arthouse version of an after-school special. That said, Leblanc’s direction is so skillful and compelling, the simplistic messaging hardly seems to matter. Here’s hoping she tries her hand at more ambitious material.
Les Nôtres will open theatrically in select cities and also be available to rent from major online platforms on June 18, 2021.