Jeanne Leblanc’s chilly Canadian feature “Les Nôtres” plunges the audience in its characters’ collective pain for under two hours and doesn’t relent. But an intriguing ensemble of tormented individuals — a flinty teenage girl, her widowed mother, a beloved but insidious mayor, his repressed wife, and more — remain fixed behind a pane of glass throughout, with Leblanc maintaining a disconcerting distance from the true darkness roiling beneath a rotten Quebec town plagued by murmurs of sexual abuse and casual racism. Expertly composed within an inch of its life, the film only brushes against these topics, leaving the door open to bigger ideas left unexplored.
For all its measured composure (by cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille), the film’s most sublime shot is its opening one, framing the naked back of the blonde-headed teen Magalie (Émilie Bierre), splayed across a rumpled bedspread. Something horrible is being telegraphed. In present day, but likely not long beyond this flash to the past, she’s widely regarded as one of the popular girls in her high school. But that all comes to a smashing halt when her unexpected pregnancy turns her into the victim of caustic whispers and slut shaming among her classmates.
A handful of culprits are presented as the possible father, including Mexican foster child Manu (Léon Diconca Pelletier), Magalie’s 13-year-old neighbor and best friend, whose adoptive parents are the town mayor, Jean-Marc (Paul Doucet) and his spaced-out, oblivious wife with a sweet heart, Chantal (Judith Baribeau, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Leblanc). Still, the mayor’s jovial front instantly wafts a creepy vibe into the proceedings, but his relationship to Magalie turns out to be more complicated than it seems.
There are echoes of films like Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” which cast an ironic shade over a community of broken-down degenerates, and even Todd Field’s “Little Children,” another emotionally remote study of suburban repression. “Les Nôtres” dwells in a similarly permanent state of literary overcast, but the characters here mostly feel like truth-shaped holes or schematic drawings of people with problems. And the actors, while fine, are often chucked into a corner (to suggest, of course, dislocation) or even out of focus during key moments, making empathy toward them a difficult ask.
As finger-pointing closes in on Manu, whose fate becomes an unfortunate inevitability, the racism simmering beneath the town’s placid demeanor and within its austere, brutalist homes starts to bubble. Magalie, meanwhile, has to weigh her options about whether or not to keep her child, and Bierre’s steely performance makes her ambivalence compelling, even if much of her screen time is spent brooding.
When the terrible reality of what brought Magalie to her pregnancy starts to unravel, the movie leans into the cheap device of a suddenly discovered diary containing one picture that tells 1,000 words, all of which are awful. As disturbing as what appears to be a widespread conspiracy amongst the townsfolk is, it’s darkly tantalizing in equal measure. Yet it becomes another wasted opportunity in a dustpan of under-explored or forgotten threads. While the raw material for something twisted and operatic exists here, Leblanc is too committed to putting meters of space between herself and the material to fully absorb the viewer. The motivations for that choice, however arty, are uncertain.
“Les Nôtres” is now playing in select theaters and on demand via Oscilloscope Laboratories.