Many, in the grand scheme of it all, will look back at their teenage love affairs — with all the raptures, jitters, and devastations — and likely won’t count them as much. But, at that same time, most everyone can relate to the groundbreaking force of that first time you felt your heart flutter, quicken, the blinding onslaught of hormones that compeled you to act with some recklessness, something that you’ll likely later learn to forever suppress. Working in the tradition of humanism and seriousness regarding the inner lives of young people, Quebecois filmmaker Philippe Lesage’s Genesis (or Genèse) is and ode to that young time in people’s lives, the time when impulses were given more attention than consequences. He continually offers heartfelt intelligence with his central trio of young people, as their awakened desire seemingly is as much a minefield as it is a thrilling new world.
For much of the film’s two-hour-and-ten-minute runtime, Lesage alternates between two of his three characters, step-siblings with separate lives but similar trajectories. Set sometime during the flip-phone era, those two stepsiblings are Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin), a wisecracking class clown at an all-boys Canadian boarding school, and Charlotte (Noée Abita), a fresh-faced high-school graduate who seems unsure what her next step is. When we first meet Guillaume in the effective, character-revealing opening scene, he’s singing, dancing, clapping on top of his desk to the cheers of his entire class. You can tell right away he’s outgoing, talented and revels in the attention of his peers. He’s that guy who plays tricks on the pretty stern-faced female teacher while his classmates snicker in awe.
Yet apparently even Guillaume is not immune to the illness that is adolescent awkwardness. At a party hosted by his best friend Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte), horny boys and girls gradually fall into the embrace of their dance partners. Guillaume, meanwhile, looks like he doesn’t quite know what to do with his lanky, lonesome self as he navigates through a sea of interlocking bodies on his way out. Eventually Guillaume would realize the source of his loneliness and there would be a kiss, followed by many, many tears. When we first meet Charlotte, she’s annoyed by boyfriend Maxime’s (Pier-Luc Funk) suggestion that they be able to “see” other people. But it soon turns out that Charlotte is the one who’s ready to explore as she hooks up with and older musician type Théo (Maxime Dumontier), whose single-minded erotic attention toward her is initially a welcome match with her newfound freedom. It’s a relationship that, as it starts, we’re not sure if Charlotte is doing out of spite, until later when Charlotte sees Théo for who he really is and is forced to take stock of her feelings, even if it means throwing away reason or dignity.
Throughout Genesis Lesage’s keen eye for emotional truths and his sensitive cinematic voice finds every frame of this movie feeling like a piece of youth distilled, raw and precious. His screenplay and direction are alive and in-the-moment, there are numerous scenes where you witness a character making irrational, potentially self-destructive choices, and he’s already brilliantly invested you into those characters, so a protective instinct comes when they make those choices, you also understand innately where they are coming from and can’t really imagine them behaving any differently. While the dreamy, milky palette from cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni brings an almost nostalgic look to the film, the camerawork itself captures the shifting attention of impulsive love with great repose: the camera is never hurried nor too bothered to tell the viewer where to look, it often even drifts and seems to only land on a face by accident. The calm anticipatory silence is magical, yet grounded. This isn’t a movie that strives to send you message or offer some kind of solution to your woes and regrets, it just steadily reminds you how something you would shrug off today used to be earth-shattering, and deeply real.
The two most central performances from Pellerin and Abita are fantastic, each fiercely charismatic in a way that doesn’t compromise the vulnerability of their characters. Guillaume’s storyline builds towards a beautiful speech about devotion late in the film which Pellerin delivers in an honest, heart-stopping openness. In his fearless, almost optimistic act of soul-baring, you recognize his pre-adulthood lack of pretension and cynicism that’s practically disarming. It’s a scene of self-expression unlike any other in teen-love cinema. Abita, who came onto the scene with her starring turn in the Cannes hit Ava, doesn’t have that one big scene to knock you out, but her presence speaks sensuality and fragility at once, embodying the endless mystery of a teenage girl with perfect ease.
But it’s in the film’s final twenty or-so minutes that Lesage transports us to a woodsy summer camp setting for a vignette that reintroduces his previous film The Demons‘ lead character Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, returning), who is a hesitant guitar-playing teen discovering he has feelings for a similarly shy attendee Beatrice (Émilie Bierre). (I haven’t actually seen Lesage’s film The Demons, so I can’t fully speak on how the Felix character is compared to the previous film.) With cheerful folk music, blushing faces and innocent hand holding under the trees suddenly replacing the somber emo pop, shadowy instability and unrequited desire of Guillaume and Charlotte’s stories, the transition to this storyline can be a bit jarring, yet also a sneakily poetic mislead. Some may feel like this final vignette is an abandonment of the two characters at a low point, but there’s a method in Lesage’s tonal shift to a scene of hearts first stirred. A vision of longing and growing young desire, Genesis is a film that feels deeply alive, one that keys in on the impulses and pains of heartache and the euphoric power of the love to come.