'A Colony' ('Une colonie'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

A Colony-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Berlinale
A convincing young cast breathes life into an anxious age.

An insecure Canadian teen is caught between social conformity and her own uniqueness in Genevieve Dulude-de Celles’s prize-winning coming-of-age film.

The hell that was high school is brought home with resonant realism in A Colony (Une colonie), Genevieve Dulude-de Celles’ closely observed coming-of-age movie which won the Crystal Bear for best film in the Berlinale’s Generation Kplus — an award given by a children’s jury. (It earned more laurels at the Quebec City and Whistler film festivals in the director’s native Canada.) With it, she makes a near-flawless leap from her Sundance-winning short film The Cut and her feature documentary Welcome to F.L. into the world of full-length fiction. This French-language tale aimed at young audiences is a lovely start — wise but never preachy.

Absorbing characters and emotional verismo combine in the story of Mylia (Emilie Bierre), a pretty girl consumed by runaway insecurity. In passing, we hear about a trauma a few years back, something unpleasant at school that became much worse after her mother lodged an official complaint with the principal. Now Mylia keeps to herself, eyes down, ready to blush and turn away at the first obstacle.

In the opening scene set in a rural residential area, Mylia's feisty little sister Camille (a wisely delightful Irlande Cote) discovers one of the family’s hens has been pecked to death by the other chickens. Only later in the film is the connection made to non-conformists and people who stand out from the crowd: The dead chicken was somehow different, and the flock kills off the weakest individuals. Camille, who has the makings of a future psychologist, is more forgiving toward the killers when she opines, “Being caged drives them crazy.”

All this finds parallels in the high school hierarchy of popular and unpopular kids and Mylia’s tentative efforts to regain status. When Jacinthe (Cassandra Gosselin-Pelletier), one of the popular girls, invites Mylia over to help with her homework, she cautiously takes it as an opening. As things progress, Mylia has to evaluate how much she’s willing to sacrifice for social inclusion. For example, her new girlfriends pressure her to lose her virginity with a certain cool boy. This is supposed to happen at a school Halloween party, like a rite being consumed, without pleasure or preliminaries. Just because. Though Mylia is silent as a clam, one can feel the anxiety building up inside her, and the scene is quite depressingly effective.

It would seem hard to hold interest in such a repressed character as this, but there's something realistic about young Bierre’s low-key acting that the viewer instinctively empathizes with. Like the way Mylia fights her growing esteem and fondness for Jimmy (Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie), a boy from a Native American family who will never have any standing with the school leaders. His perceptiveness and gentle ways with little Camille are in sharp contrast to his outbursts of anger at the casual racism of his peers, which is painfully reflected in the history books they read in school. But he recognizes the introverted Mylia as a kindred spirit when he asks her if she was one of the kids who “colored outside the lines.”

The well-written dialogue is full of the hurtful things kids say to each other to defend or revenge themselves. Role-players more than non-conformists, Jimmy and Mylia work through their own problems in a halting way. The girl is so silent and hesitant, she seems inarticulate, unable to communicate what’s wrong until she starts screaming and Jimmy calms her down. The stressed-out relationship between Mylia's father, who is sleeping on the couch, and her mother, who sees a lot of a woman friend named Doudou, remains hazy background noise.

Apart from the fine acting, much of the film’s effects are obtained from Lena Mill-Reuillard and Etienne Roussy’s nervously rolling camera and expressive lighting, which mimic Mylia’s jumbled feelings. Stephane Lafleur’s editing does an admirable job patching the bits and pieces together without narrative confusion.
Production company: Colonelle Films
Cast: Émilie Bierre, Irlande Côté, Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie, Cassandra Gosselin-Pelletier, Noemie Godin-Vigneau, Robin Aubert
Director-screenwriter: Genevieve Dulude-de Celles
Producers: Fanny Drew, Sarah Mannering
Directors of photography: Lena Mill-Reuillard, Etienne Roussy
Production designer: Eric Barbeau
Costume designer: Eugenie Clermont
Editor: Stephane Lafleur
Music: Mathieu Charbonneau
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Generation Kplus)

102 minutes