Growing pains and burgeoning sexual identity take center stage in several titles duking it out for the Pardo d’Oro, or Golden Leopard, at this year’s Locarno Film Festival. Of these, Genesis, a multi-stranded meditation on the joy and misery of adolescence by Canadian writer-director Philippe Lesage, seems most likely to find an audience beyond the festival circuit. The film focuses largely on the relationship woes of a pair of privileged step-siblings living in suburban French Canada: Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin), a preppy, quick-witted class clown at an all-boys boarding school, secretly harboring feelings for his best friend, Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte), and Charlotte (Noée Abita), who feels she’s outgrown her noncommittal boyfriend, Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk), and sets off looking for love in all the wrong places.
Pellerin strikes a deft balance between brattiness and vulnerability as Guillaume, while Lesage’s verbose screenplay gifts the character a handful of excellent moments. His coming-out scene, in which he confesses his love for Nicolas as part of a class presentation, is by turns droll and heart-wrenching. An earlier exchange in which he and a younger schoolmate discreetly acknowledge one another as queer kindred spirits is another high point.
It’s a shame, then, that other aspects of this narrative thread—from Guillaume’s misreading of Nicolas’s bromantic displays of affection, to his inevitable ill-advised attempt at a drunken kiss—play out so predictably. But it’s in the depiction of Charlotte that the film really falters. Lesage is presumably sympathetic to her plight, but his penchant for lingering tracking shots lends some of her scenes an unsettling voyeurism. More troublingly, her romantic misadventures culminate in a harrowing sequence in which she’s sexually assaulted. Given the emphasis placed throughout the film on Charlotte’s impetuousness and emotional immaturity, it feels as if Lesage is insinuating that she has, at least in part, brought this horror upon herself.
That her story ends so abruptly is also problematic; viewers must bear witness to the filmmaker inflicting Lars von Trier-like atrocities on his leading lady but are offered no meaningful insight into the consequences of this traumatic episode. The epilogue, which disorientingly relocates to a summer camp to observe the chaste courtship of a pair of young teens, is affecting on its own terms but feels like a clumsy attempt at offering tonal balance.
And yet, despite these missteps, there remains plenty to enjoy here, from witty classroom sequences to an eclectic and pervasive soundtrack. Comparisons between Lesage and Xavier Dolan, a fellow Québécois filmmaker with an interest in young lives and a penchant for melodrama, are inevitable but pertinent. Indeed, like much of Dolan’s output to date, Genesis seems destined to enchant and irritate in equal measure.
That said, the film’s shortcomings seem extremely minor when considered alongside those of Swiss director Thomas Imbach’s baffling Glaubenberg. It wastes no time in thrusting us into the chaotic headspace of 16-year-old Lena (Zsofia Körös), who harbors an all-consuming desire for her older brother, Noah (Francis Benjamin Meier). Wary of his sister’s advances, Noah hotfoots it to Turkey upon graduating high school. But this abandonment has devastating effects on Lena: Tormented by vivid erotic dreams, she deprives herself of sleep, to the extent that fantasy and reality begin to blur.
In its early scenes, Glaubenberg has the look and feel of a cheap high school-set romcom, which makes the subsequent swerve toward Polanski-esque psychodrama somewhat jarring. More fatally, Imbach fails to render Lena’s plight sympathetic. From the outset, she’s ruthless in her pursuit of Noah, and hostile toward anyone she perceives as a threat. When she inevitably follows her brother to Turkey, the film takes on the air of an overwrought thriller akin to Fatal Attraction, as opposed to the tragic romance Imbach was presumably aiming for. The jaw-droppingly earnest denouement had viewers at the film’s Locarno press screening giggling in derision.
Dominga Sotomayor, one of three women filmmakers featured in this year’s international competition, fares far better at crafting a compelling and plausible female teen protagonist. Set in the early 1990s, Too Late to Die Young is a beguilingly loose and languorous portrait of an isolated hippyish community in the sun-kissed foothills of the Andes. As the inhabitants prepare for a New Year’s Eve party, young Sofia (Demian Hernández) finds herself increasingly averse to the childish affection showered on her by her awkward peer, Lucas (Antar Machado), and simultaneously drawn toward the older but almost certainly less suitable Ignacio (Matías Oviedo).
Like the kids of Genesis and Glaubenberg, Sofia teeters precariously on the brink of adulthood, but Sotomayor proves far more adept at rendering her characters relatable, and understands that inner turmoil need not necessarily be conveyed via the infliction of external trauma. The root causes of Sofia’s insecurity—an emotionally absent father and a physically absent mother—are woven into the narrative gradually and unobtrusively. We come to understand fairly precisely who Sofia is, but the filmmaking never feels didactic.
Though the social milieu it depicts is markedly different, the film is strikingly reminiscent of Call Me by Your Name in its nostalgia-tinged evocation of a bucolic haven for artists, intellectuals, and free spirits. But where Luca Guadagnino offered a vision of a true idyll where Timothée Chalamet’s teenage Elio could explore his emerging identity without impediment, Too Late to Die Young’s fraught final act suggests that Sotomayer is rather more cynical about the notion of earthly utopia. But even as it veers toward darker terrain, the film remains laudably level-headed and unsentimental.
The Locarno Film Festival runs from August 1—11.