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Genre films can only be classified — or even recognized — as such because of the clichés of the genre in question, so making a genre film that feels fresh is not as easy as it sounds. Genre filmmakers have two areas where they can really customize their material: the characters and the film’s sense of place. It’s a lesson that newbie Quebec director Francois Peloquin seems to have taken to heart for his affecting and beautifully shot coming-of-age film, The Sound of Trees (Le Bruit des arbres). This story of a teenager who realizes he might have to try to break free from his sawmill-owner dad, set in and around the forests of central Quebec, is headlined by impressive up-and-comer Antoine L’Ecuyer and veteran French-Canadian star Roy Dupuis.
This is quickly turning into an exceptional year for Canadian coming-of-age titles with a strong sense of place: At Cannes, Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant, set on Lake Ontario, was part of the Critics’ Week lineup; in Munich, the superior German-Canadian co-production Coconut Hero, set in a former mining town in rural Ontario, premiered; and now there’s Trees, set in Bas-Saint-Laurent, the densely wooded, sparsely populated region of Quebec just north of Maine. The latter film premiered in Karlovy Vary, though oddly, despite being one of the strongest entries in competition, it went home empty-handed. It was released locally July 3.
Jeremie (L’Ecuyer), or Jay for short, loves to hang out with his buds Francis (Remi Goulet) and P.O. (Charles-Emile Lafleur) and more than occasionally, as teenage boys are wont to do, they get up to no good, whether it’s scoring drugs from a local dealer who lives in a dingy lakeside trailer or stealing hubcaps off cars in a scrap yard. Initially, life seems to simply run its lazy summertime course, in total freedom and without any worries, as suggested by a languorously fluid Steadicam shot of Jay biking from home to his father’s sawmill with the family dog wagging its tail as it runs along besides him.
But adolescence and, more generally, emancipation are of course impossible without change, which in turn provides drama. With Jeremie’s older brother marrying and leaving home and the family business, and their father receiving a takeover bid for his mill, which has reliable but not exactly state-of-the-art equipment, it slowly starts to dawn on the protagonist that the only certainty about his future might be that, whatever happens, nothing will be like it was before.
There’s a sense that his father expects him to take over the business, but it’s not immediately clear to Jay what he wants for himself either professionally or even in general. His ambiguous relationship with Maya (Willia Ferland-Tanguay), suggests as much. After a nighttime dare involving a high bridge and practically no clothes, he kisses the girl full on the mouth and they stumble into the undergrowth to have sex. He explains to someone they were just flirting but it later emerges they “broke up,” even though apparently they “never were together.” Whatever the truth, a terrific scene with her alone on the steps of a rural store not only uncovers Jay’s tender side but also suggests to what extent he takes after his outwardly rough but also sincere and loving father. And whatever the teens’ relationship status might be, any boy that’s as territorial as Jay is about Maya clearly feels something for her.
Like elsewhere in the film, Peloquin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sarah Levesque, here beautifully suggests character through action and helps to gently force the audience’s perspective on the leads by carefully moving their elements into place. Maya is never really seen, for example, until the night they have sex, though some days have passed since the start of the film. This initially suggests that Jay doesn’t care about her, an impression reinforced by the fact viewers won’t even know her name until much later. But as she becomes a recurring character, she grows in importance and reveals information not only about herself but, through his complex reactions to her presence in his life, also about Jay.
Without getting too intellectual, suffice it to say that in order to mature, Jay needs to experience not only Eros but also Thanatos, or death. A scene involving the family dog teaches father and son something about responsibility. Though it’s played with a salty kind of matter-of-factness that’s linked to their rural reality and completely avoids melodrama, the scene is nonetheless heart-wrenching. It also foreshadows a ghastly discovery in the dairy barn of Francis’s family, a subplot that’s somewhat disorientingly introduced by a temporary shift in perspective to a peripheral adult character but that lands on its feet with an impressive closeup of Jeremie’s face as he stumbles backwards and manages to steady himself on a bale of hay, eyes wide open in horror.
With his baseball cap on backwards, fake diamond studs in his ears, pitiful attempt at facial hair and his passion for fast cars and urban, “post-rap” hip hop (including Montreal-based group Dead Obies), Jay may look and act like countless other 17-year-olds. But Jeremie’s journey toward adulthood is his alone thanks to a strong screenplay, relatively light on narrative momentum but that constantly translates actions into character insight, and to a towering, apparently effortless performance from the magnetic L’Ecuyer. Though Dupuis is terrific, this is really the young actor’s film. When he hits the road in one of the film’s last shots, he’s clearly not the boy from that opening Steadicam shot anymore. Instead, he’s become a young man.
Providing a strong sense of place is Francois Messier-Rhealt’s majestic widescreen cinematography, which includes impressive overhead shots and a lot of magic-hour backlighting of the rural locales in which the story unfolds. Besides sketching the story of how a son becomes his own man, Trees also shows how Canada’s already thinly populated provinces are transformed by the arrival of industrial mechanization and the departure of the land’s sons to the big cities.
Production companies: Couzin Films
Cast: Antoine L’Ecuyer, Roy Dupuis, Willia Ferland-Tanguay
Director: Francois Peloquin
Screenplay: Sarah Levesque, Francois Peloquin
Producer: Ziad Touma
Director of photography: Francois Messier-Rheault
Production designer: Simon Guilbault
Costume designer: Julie Charland
Editors: Martin Bourgault, Aube Foglia, Simon Sauve
Music: Mimi Allard
Sales: Alpha Violet
No rating, 76 minutes
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