Tuesday 16 March 2021

Beyond the schoolgates: "A Colony"

You could programme a very decent, probably not unrepresentative season of New Canadian Cinema from the streaming options made available in the UK over the past few weeks. To the varied pleasures of The Twentieth Century, Come True and Mouthpiece, we can now add Geneviève Dulude-De Celles' thoughtful and affecting A Colony, which whisks us off to the leafy provinces of French-speaking Quebec to view teenage rites-of-passage through a markedly more sociological lens. From its opening scene, Dulude-De Celles' camera falls into lockstep with its nervy, defensive subject Mylia (Emilie Bierre), a girl trying to find her place among the corridors and cliques of her smalltown high school, and thereby make the difficult transition from childhood to adolescence, protective older sister to prospective party animal. Everything she notices in her daily rounds - her classmates' prescription footwear and stick-on fingernails, the rows her parents have while she's in the tub, the mysterious rituals going on in the backrooms of social gatherings - we're set to pick up, too; this camera is looped into the heroine's developing sensibilities in a way the camera in the more commercial Mean Girls wasn't quite. With its elements of hall-pass documentary (or, if not that, then very loosely improvised fiction), this is that rare high-school coming-of-age drama that falls within touching distance of both Eighth Grade and Être et Avoir.

I don't doubt that some - more than likely those raised on a strict diet of Hollywood teen movies - will be driven to gaze listlessly out of a nearby window by the lack of immediate dramatic oomph. What hooked me was the pinsharp quality of Dulude-De Celles' observation, how skilfully she reveals her subjects' personalities, and the manner in which they relate to one another. The whole movie hinges on a filmmaker taking the time to look properly at someone who might otherwise appear too shy and recessive to merit sustained cinematic study, and Bierre, gradually opening up and finding a measure of go-it-alone self-confidence, amply rewards her director's gaze; Dulude-De Celles also coaxes a cracking performance from the adorable Irlande Côté, who barely seems to be acting at all as Mylia's lil' sis Camille. Yet it's something more, too: how assuredly this camera delineates different perspectives. The narrative, such as it is, takes a left turn when Mylia, in the midst of a drunken blackout, is scooped lovingly up by the First Nation family at the end of the road. Here is another world entirely - or, to be as precise as Dulude-De Celles' framing, a world within a world, adjacent to Mylia's own, yet somewhat further out from the centre of things. 

Mylia's budding friendship with her neighbour's son Jimmy (Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie) - in school, where he serves as a brooding, sometimes simmering deskbuddy, and out in the wider community - reshapes her understanding of what's around her: from being the centre of the world, she gradually realises she is but one among many. She's sometimes attentive to that fact, listening to a story Jimmy tells about a factory collapse in India that proves crucial to what the entire film's getting at. Yet she can also be dismissive or outright cruel, at one point mocking her friend's heritage and upbringing, siding with the clique against the outsider. The space she's moving into, in short, is more or less that occupied by any white Westerner, boy or girl, young or old. It's telling that the only lessons we see these kids attend is a semester's worth of civics classes addressing what it means to be a citizen, the kind of teaching for which the British curriculum barely allows time. (And, boy, has that shown through of late.) By the end of this quietly sad, fiercely wise film, Mylia has become a little more schooled in the complex ways of this world and its people. Dulude-De Celles' unfaltering ability to redirect and sharpen our gaze and make her audience rethink any assumptions about these relationships and formative moments ensures we are, too.

A Colony is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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