Les Nôtres is a mystery that faces great difficulties when it comes to deciding where its priorities lie. It starts off strong, as a brooding character piece that examines the psyche of a pregnant teenager who feels vulnerable and afraid, but begins to lose its way when it decides to throw in a couple of twists and turns. The screenwriters, Jeanne LeBlanc and Judith Baribeau, do such a good job at developing three-dimensional, complicated characters that we want to spend more time plumbing the depths of their emotions. When it suddenly drops all pretence of being a character study and becomes a fairly formulaic story about a small town full of dark secrets, it feels as though they have let something special slip away from them.
They set their story in Sainte-Adeline, Quebec, a picturesque small town that is too sleepy and peaceful to not follow the adage ‘everything is not as it seems.’ It is a relatively wealthy, prosperous area in which white middle class families hold racist prejudices and the powerful are able to get away with corruption. Everybody is shocked when the thirteen-year-old Magalie Jodoin (Émilie Bierre) is revealed to be pregnant. She chooses to have the child and everybody around her pressures her to tell them who the father of the child is. Rumours begin to swirl, Jodoin is the victim of bullying at school and those who do know about the paternity of her child are very nervous.
This is a typical setup for a small town mystery, but Les Nôtres displays flashes of inspiration in its haunting opening scenes. We witness a party held in order to commemorate a tragic event and are lulled into a false sense of security when we notice Jodoin hanging out with her friends and dancing in a loose, unrestrained manner. There isn’t any ominous music on the soundtrack or shots of her nervously glancing at one of the men in the room. Nothing about the scene is ominous in an obvious way, but the editor finds a way to make the party feel as though it slowly bleeds into the morning after. The visuals are arresting and stark when we are first presented with evidence of Jodoin having had a sexual encounter after the event. The shot is composed so that we are forced to put the pieces together ourselves. Half of her face isn’t revealed but we do notice that she is naked, alone and in an anonymous hotel room. There is a sense that Jodoin is comfortable with this arrangement and has been put in this position before. This is what unsettles us, as we expect such a young girl to feel discomfort in the wake of having sex and being left alone and vulnerable by their sexual partner. It’s an audacious opening and it builds up the expectation that the rest of the film will find a way to accurately pinpoint the ickiness of child sexual abuse and inappropriate relationships between older men and very young girls.
Sadly, this sort of quietly upsetting, atmospheric tension is not present in many of the following scenes. In trying to creep out the audience in more obvious ways, the screenplay loses its way and begins to drift into after-school special territory. It feels particularly hand-wringing and preachy when it depicts the bullying that Jodoin has to deal with. The bullies are rake thin, predatory hot chicks who send her texts full of mean insults. These characters have no interiority and we never fully understand why they choose to target this young woman. Bullying is such a difficult problem to deal with because bullies are able to convince themselves that their abusive behaviour is justifiable or simply a form of light-hearted entertainment. All of these girls are evil and seem to be aware of the fact that their efforts will lead their classmate to feel deep anguish. There is no consideration of their motivations and the situation is drawn in black-and-white, without the moral ambiguity that defines most real life situations. Most viewers will be compelled to roll their eyes at the hackneyed tropes, rather than being genuinely concerned for Jodoin’s mental wellbeing.
There are also confusing decisions made in relation to the blocking of scenes and practical considerations of the ways that offices are laid out. There is a scene in which a character has to be caught looking at naughty images on the internet and it carries a lot of weight in the narrative because it establishes the fact that this character holds a great deal of power. Oddly, he sits at a desk that is turned towards the door leading into his office, which means that somebody could open the door and automatically see what he is searching for on his computer. This is an odd, unrealistic set-up that comes across as incredibly contrived and unconvincing. It makes it easier to stage a scene in which an assistant bursts in on her employer looking at some illicit content, but it robs the film of the feeling of authenticity that is necessary to make the emotional beats land.
This is a well-intentioned piece of work that has a lot on its mind but that isn’t enough to compensate for the glaring flaws that let it down. The skilful performances, effective opening scenes and daring subject matter can’t stop it from feeling like a television production at times. Without the heavy-handed direction, this might have succeeded as a moody melodrama full of bitter emotions and detached characters.
Les Nôtres is available in the US from June 18, 2021