Offbeat French-Canadian drama “Story of Jen” starts off as a promising coming-of-ager until literally losing itself in a wilderness of misguided plot points and overwrought naturalism. Still, writer-director Francois Rotger’s (“The Passenger”) sophomore effort features some strong visuals and a memorable perf by Quebecois actress Laurence Leboeuf, whose turn as a bright-eyed teen suffering from intense growing pains and a miserable rural lifestyle makes her someone to watch. Other portions of this confused co-production are considerably less watchable, spinning a story that will be told primarily on the fest circuit before bowing in Gaul on June 10.
In a roughshod stretch of Canadian woodlands where hunting — both animals and humans — seems to be the only leisure-time activity, 15-year-old Jen (Leboeuf) lives in a prefab homestead with her recently widowed French mother, Sarah (Marina Hands). Through a harrowing flashback, we learn that Jen’s father died after downing a bottle of Jack Daniels and chasing it with a loaded shotgun, leaving his wife and daughter alone with lots of unfriendly neighbors who seem to blame Sarah for the suicide.
While Jen deals with the usual downers of high school life, her stubborn and depressed mom invites a stoical drifter and distant family member, Ian (Tony Ward), to live on their property. For reasons unknown except perhaps to teenagers and overreaching filmmakers, Jen falls for the much older Ian, and their animal attraction (illustrated by lots of scenes with horses) takes a turn for the worse, resulting in a manhunt that has the pic traveling to parts unknown, and perhaps better left unexplored.
Rotger — a fashion and portrait photographer whose previous feature offered a similar blend of esoteric plotting and disturbing sexual relationships — relies too heavily on his own imagination to tell a story he then tries to ground in a kind of backwoods realism. If Jen is endearing as an adolescent yearning for adulthood, the near-mute Ian remains incomprehensible, and the fact that he becomes the film’s principal focus in the latter half ruins any chances of understanding what the director is attempting.
The helmer does extract a great performance from Leboeuf, whose expressive, elfin looks and smooth handling of English and French-language dialogues give Jen an authenticity that the other protags lack. Hands (“Lady Chatterley”), who usually puts plenty into her roles, can’t seem to wrap herself around Sarah’s various tantrums, while Tony Ward’s Ian is physically unsettling but otherwise unanimated.
Quebec landscapes are aptly captured by d.p. George Lechaptois (“Twentynine Palms”); Valerie Massadian’s (“Eat, for This Is My Body”) production design makes the interiors look like places you’d never want to visit.