In “U.S. Go Home,” Claire Denis brings toughness and tenderness to the potentially touchy scenario of three teens determined to lose their virginity. Though it was made for French TV, this warmly satisfying spin along the tortuous path of adolescence is a small jewel with more than enough sparkle for bigscreen showcasing via specialized theatrical distribution.
The film is part of IMA Prods.’ “Tous les Garcons et les Filles de Leur Age” series (for Euro cultural web Arte) conceived by former publicist Chantal Poupaud. Nine directors were each commissioned to make a film about teenagers, set in the period of their own youth.
A party, and a soundtrack bulging with chart successes of the day, are central to each pic. The series begins chronologically with Andre Techine’s 1962 -set “Wild Reeds” (premiered last spring at Cannes) and wraps with Olivier Dahan’s “Brothers,” set in 1990.
Taking place in 1965, Denis’ film clocks less than 24 hours in the lives of two midteens, Martine and Marlene (Alice Houri, Jessica Tharaud), and the former’s slightly older brother, Alain (Gregoire Colin). The kids are stuck in a nowhere town that’s close enough to Paris to make it tantalizing but far enough away to keep it out of reach.
Via unexplicit, affectionate observation, Denis and co-scripter Anne Wiazemsky create likable, believable characters out of the teen trio as they prepare for a hot night out. During the girls’ pre-party makeup session, Martine pledges to get herself deflowered, while upstairs (in one of the pic’s most memorable and audaciously extended sequences), while Alain dances alone in his room like a tightly coiled sexual spring.
The party brings a swift, almost brutal change of mood as vivid splashes of color against pallid suburbia give way to alluring semi-darkness and some serious making out, splendidly shot by Agnes Godard, whose clinging camera gets determinedly in on the heavy petting.
Martine, a cruelly humbled wallflower, is soothed later in an affectingly sweet moment, when Alain consoles her with an almost sexual embrace. He in turn has been somewhat wounded by an abortive bedroom foray with Marlene.
The final act brings a further about-face in mood. Despite local anti-American feeling, Martine accepts a ride home from a U.S. soldier (Vincent Gallo) stationed at a nearby air base.
Her cockiness quickly returns in a beautiful sequence in which desire slowly begins to flicker in the lonely, initially uptight soldier as the car travels underneath an atmospheric wash of ghostly trees and sky.
Dialogue is fresh and unembellished, and Denis’ acute directorial judgment is echoed to perfection by the remarkable young cast, especially by Houri, who has no previous acting experience. The stellar selection of ’60s tunes provides additional pleasures, not least among them the Shangri-Las’ hit “Leader of the Pack,” sung in French as “Le Chef de la bande.”