Starring Julianne Côté. In French, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
Coming of age is such a gendered sphere of storytelling in movies (although less so in literature) that it’s already startling when the lead character isn’t male. It’s even more striking when the almost-a-woman isn’t particularly ingratiating, and her dreams seem puny and unformed. Quebec filmmaker Stéphane Lafleur, working on fine-toned, black-and-white 35mm film, has somehow cracked the Stand By Me code to make a movie that manages to charm and challenge expectations at the same time.
With her short, dark hair and cat-like eyes, the dormant Nicole of the title (which translates as You’re Sleeping, Nicole) is played by young TV veteran Julianne Côté, who crafts a character too caught up in finding her own agency to have developed skills that would make it matter. When we meet her, she’s slipping away from a one-night stand, with an unseen partner asking when he’ll see her again. “What’s the point?” she answers, without malice.
Nicole sorts clothes at a thrift store, but even that’s half-assed. And she still lives with her parents, currently away on summer vacation. She’s trying to enjoy the space with BFF Mélanie (Claudia-Émilie Beaupré), but her older brother (C.R.A.Z.Y.’s excellent Marc-André Grondin) has returned to the family’s leafy suburb so his struggling band can have a place to practise and record their intriguing, sometimes irritating music. She shows vague interest in the hipster drummer (Francis La Haye), but he seems to prefer the blonder, more overtly feminine Mélanie.
The girls’ days are spent wandering the places they went as children, and Nicole goes for long walks alone at night, when imagination can run free. In this sense, the film resembles Ghost World (which had Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as the mismatched misfits) if it were directed by Jim Jarmusch. But in a third, more assured feature, Lafleur (who also edited the canny Monsieur Lazhar) displays his own quietly wicked sense of humour, throwing in odd curveballs, such as the running riff about a neighbour boy (Godefroy Reding) whose voice has suddenly changed—and now he talks like the romantic lead of an old French drama.
The film, which was chosen by TIFF as one of Canada’s Top 10 for 2014 and is up for several critics’ awards, also has an air of timeless mystery; early on, Nicole impulsively buys two airline tickets to Iceland, and she even studies the language. By the end, it’s not clear if she’ll ever get there, but at least she’s fully awake to the idea.