Sweet little indie, funny and touching, will warm your heart
I attended a screening of "West of Pluto" ("A L'Ouest de Pluton") at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival. Being shot and set in Quebec, the film is in French with English subtitles. Written, directed, produced, and edited by Myriam Verreault and Henry Bernadet, "West of Pluto" is everything I look for in great independent cinema. But if my Holy Grail of festivals is the "sweet little American indie," well, I just may have found it in this film -- just take out "American" and replace it with "Canadian." The mockumentary-style narrative captures a slice of suburban life as a dozen teens hang out, party, and descend into the inevitable set of crises that comes with the lack of boundaries. It doesn't take long to get to know these endearing kids as their day plays out before the camera (the story takes place over one 24-hour period). The audience is almost privileged to be let into their secret world of drama and joy -- the viewer feels like a voyeur at times, as though one needs permission to watch.
Verreault and Bernadet first selected 50 kids from a "typical" suburban high school and narrowed the group down to a dozen, then turned on the cameras and let them "be themselves." While most of the film is actually scripted, as the filmmakers pointed out in the Q&A following the screening, much of the dialogue came out of weekly improvisational workshops conducted with the teens in the period preceding the shoot. So while the action isn't necessarily improvised, they aren't reading lines off the page, either.
"West of Pluto" is indie all the way, with the use of natural lighting and mostly hand-held camera. The filmmakers' style includes numerous extreme closeups, as the emotions projected by these endearing kids' faces and eyes often say more than even the most powerful words can. As we spend more and more time with them, it becomes clear that these young people represent all of us -- every viewer will be able to identify with one or more of them, which is what makes it such a universally appealing film. As non-actors, these are literally real kids saying real things. Even in French, as an English-speaking viewer, the language of adolescence shines through. Once again, the idea that "kids are the same all over the world," the overarching theme in most of the foreign coming-of-age films at these festivals, is blatantly evident.
The most striking observation uncovered by watching these kids is how dramatic a contrast there is between girls when they are among other girls and boys as a group. Throughout most of the film we see males and females interacting with others of their own gender. The girls sit and argue and debate over whether or not Quebec should secede from Canada while the boys get high and ponder the philosophical significance of the butterflies on the bathroom wallpaper. Unlike most depictions of the sexes in cinema, the respect they show each other is remarkable, especially among the boys. The sniping, fighting, and one-upmanship so common in films simply isn't present here. In fact, the girls are actually tougher when together. The boys show more vulnerability even towards each other -- it is they who shed the tears, not the girls.
"West of Pluto" is also the first film in a long time that had me laughing untiI I cried. But it wasn't anything the kids did that prompted that to happen. No, it was the actions of one eccentric canine which had me rolling on the floor. The dog steals the show.
What's fascinating about attending film festivals is how trends begin to emerge after seeing dozens of films. One recurring theme is the idea of kids being left to their own devices, either by choice or lack of adult supervision, and the inevitable dark turn and ensuing spiral into mayhem which occurs.
Three of my favorite coming-of-age films of the past five years are the 2004 indie classic "Mean Creek," Alexis Dos Santos' "Glue," which was my #1 Top Pick from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, and "Still Green," the Jon Artigo indie from 2007. "Mean Creek" took a group of kids and set them loose on a boating excursion with dire consequences. "Glue" was an unscripted film featuring three teens in the Argentinian countryside, in a touching story of self-discovery. "Still Green" was set on the Gulf Coast of Florida with a group of college-bound friends, with a dark turn that changes their lives forever.
All owe a debt to Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark, who are perhaps the two best known filmmakers able to capture the awkwardness of adolescence, the pangs of first love, and the playfulness of children without supervision. In "Kids" and "Ken Park," Clark took non-professional actors and shot them in cinema verité style, just being themselves. In films like "Elephant" and "Paranoid Park," in particular, Van Sant did the same while using long takes and tracking shots, viewing the kids as observers with a deliberate, slow pace. It is now a common device among younger directors who count him among their influences (and freely admit it).
"West of Pluto" does all the above. This is the kind of charming film that makes attending festivals and sitting through dozens of movies worthwhile. It is the "sweet little indie" that will stay in your mind long after leaving the theater.
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