Suzanne Lindon’s debut feature, a coming-of-age drama that might sound like a dozen other films about teenage girls entangled in ill-advised relationships with older men, packs a few sneakily ambitious swings. Some pay off, like a second half bent toward full-scale musical sequences, while others nearly sink what is a promising first film. Chief among those missteps: Lindon’s choice to cast herself as the film’s leading lady, an awkward 16-year-old also known as Suzanne (we can only presume the story might be based on parts of her own life). It’s a demanding role that Lindon can never quite pull off.
Part of that is due to the age difference. Lindon is a youthful 20-year-old, but the rest of her teenage cast is, well, made up of teenagers. To cover the physical differences, the filmmaker and actress often reverts to obvious acting affectations: tugging on her limp ponytail, hiding beneath long bangs, or fussing with a drink and staring off into the middle distance. We get the message that Suzanne feels weird in her own skin and disconnected from her peers, but Lindon’s delivery is too broad to feel real. Lindon has more success when Suzanne is in the company of her cheery middle-class family, scenes in which it’s slightly easier to picture the actress as a shy high schooler.
The texture of Suzanne’s experience is more believable, as her bubble of discontent is pierced by the appearance of a handsome thirtysomething actor (Arnaud Valois) who is staging a play at a theater on Suzanne’s route between school and home. (Filmed around Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood, Lindon excels at capturing both vibrant street scenes and more intimate gatherings.) Like Suzanne, Raphaël seems ill at ease — with his fellow actors and their blowhard director, spending most of their conversations staring into the void — until Suzanne wanders into frame. As they continue to bump into each other — often, due to Suzanne’s youthful machinations — a tentative friendship begins and eventually blossoming into something else.
To answer the inevitable question: While clearly attracted to each other, Suzanne and Raphaël mostly operate within emotional spaces. Lindon keeps the majority of their interactions relatively chaste, but the dynamic between Suzanne and Raphaël is one meant (and expected) to provoke reactions. (France’s age of consent is 15.) Suzanne even refers to Raphaël as “an adult” during a tear-streaked confession to her mother, so while Linton avoids overt sexuality, the implication is clear.
There’s also the question of why a man like Raphaël — handsome, educated, surely not lacking in interest from the age-appropriate opposite sex — would be interested in a shy teenager like Suzanne. That’s something Linton and Valois are never able to satisfyingly interrogate. Her age is made clear during their earliest interactions, and “Spring Blossom” steadily builds their bond upon what they do have in common: mostly, not really liking anyone else. Suzanne repeatedly tells Raphaël she’s “bored” with her fellow teens — something that has already been handily delivered through a number of well-directed scenes showing Suzanne struggling with regular teen stuff, including one very bad party — while Raphaël shrugs off any attempts at bon homie from his castmates.
Deeper insights into Raphaël’s internal life and his sense of the growing friendship with Suzanne are hard to come by as attempts to examine the drama from his perspective fall flat. Clocking in at just 72 minutes, “Spring Blossom” is already winding down by the time it gets moving, and an amusing sequence in which Suzanne grapples her way through a very strange adult party — including an expertly scripted and directed interaction with a real bore of a set designer — only hint at what seems to be a bigger, richer third act. Lindon’s tendency to cut emotional scenes just as they get going doesn’t help, and the result is a narrative flow that’s both expected and confounding.
When Lindon isn’t at the mercy of her but-I’m-a-teenager ruse, “Spring Blossom” and its filmmaker get a chance to show off some real creative sparks, including a trio of musical numbers that offer cinematic style and emotional flair. Lindon, it seems, remains attuned to what being a teenager feels like. One sequence follows Suzanne as she celebrates locking down a date with Raphaël, an expression of exuberant joy that’s more relatable than nearly anything else in the film — even if she’s not always adept at delivering that in her performance. Similarly, a sequence in which Suzanne and Raphaël bond over listening to a piece of classical music does more to crystallize their relationship than any other interaction.
Those are smart creative choices. While “Spring Blossom” may demand judicious pruning, it hints at bigger things yet to bloom for Lindon.
“Spring Blossom” had its international premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.