Young French director Anne-Sophie Birot makes an impressive debut with “Girls Can’t Swim,” a neatly drawn tale of teenage femme friendship in which raging hormones send out scrambled, finally dangerous, messages. Topped by an eye-catching perf from newcomer Isild Le Besco (also striking in Benoit Jacquot’s costumer “Sade”), this deserves serious consideration by offshore tube buyers and could even notch up modest business in some arthouse salles.
Gwen (Le Besco) is an extroverted, volatile 15-year-old, with baby fat in all the right places, who’s used to the attention of boys in the Brittany fishing village where she lives with her indulgent mom, Celine (French-Canadian star Pascale Bussieres, suppressing her Quebec accent), and easygoing dad, Alain (Pascal Elso). She’s upset when her bosom buddy Lise (Karen Alyx) can’t join her from Paris for the summer vacation, but gets on with her carefree life, largely centered on sex.
Pic pulls a neat switch a half-hour in when it suddenly switches to Lise (till then unseen) and backtracks in time. The real reason she can’t visit Gwen is because her family has been shattered by the sudden death of their father, who walked out a decade ago. Lise’s mom (Marie Riviere) feigns coolness but is highly distraught, and the all-female household takes on an unsettling, unreal calm.
Lise finally ankles on a train to visit Gwen, and the two girls get together for the third act. But their reunion is soon soured by Lise’s jealousy over Gwen’s appetite for the opposite sex.
Though Birot and Christophe Honore’s script sensibly avoids grasping the nettle, there’s an unmistakable strain of incipient lesbianism on the part of tomboyish Lise. In other respects, there’s also much more going on beneath the surface of the film: Gwen’s boundless energy and sunny disposition conceal an unwitting selfishness that doesn’t take account of the more serious Lise’s bottled-up feelings.
Though the very physical Le Besco dominates the going in the showier role, Alyx is equally good as Lise, a snub-nosed little redhead who can be just as ruthless at getting what she wants. Among the older thesps, Bussieres is natural as Gwen’s adoring, tolerant mother, and Elso grows in the role of her weak, rather hopeless father.
Birot’s natural, unforced direction subtly changes gear between the girls’ homes without making major stylistic points. It’s a modest but well-observed pic that gives plenty of space to its actors and is rewarded with by fine playing down the line.