There may not be a genre with as limited a capacity to surprise a grown audience as the still-ubiquitous coming-of-age drama: While teenage kicks may switch from generation to generation, the process of self-realization they accompany remains universally constant. It’s the subtler textures of environment and character, then, that distinguish entries like Francois Peloquin’s debut feature, “The Sound of Trees,” from the dewy-eyed dross. Short and bittersweet, this portrait of a 17-year-old trainee lumberjack seeking a life larger than his rural corner of Quebec benefits from a close, compassionate view of its protagonist’s community — including several adults who haven’t yet found their own direction. Balmily shot and dynamically anchored by proven young talent Antoine L’Ecuyer, “Trees” will spread its branches amply on the festival circuit.
Boutique distributors interested in the pic — and there may be a few — might wish to tweak the title slightly: Quite aside from risking unwanted confusion with Gus Van Sant’s recent Cannes dud “The Sea of Trees,” the New Age-y implications of “The Sound of Trees” don’t quite square with its raw, sometimes rowdy portrayal of stir-crazy adolescent debauchery in the small village of Gaspesie — the flat, thirsty vistas of which are shot with appropriately desolate grandeur (going heavy on the late-afternoon lens flares) by Francois Messier-Rheault.
Then again, as a literal reference to the timberyard vocation seemingly prescribed for young Jeremie (L’Ecuyer), “the sound of trees” is perhaps an apt description of the quiet life he yearns to escape — even if the road only takes him as far as the relative metropolis of Quebec City. Dedicated in the closing credits to the helmer’s own son, Peloquin’s film is shot through with a warm understanding of how people shift and widen their personal goalposts as the decades pass, and the compensatory rewards we give ourselves when certain dreams go unfulfilled.
For his part, Jeremie appears to have devoted less thought to what he does want to do with his life than what he emphatically doesn’t. He’s keen on French hip-hop and fast engines, while his derivative dress sense (snapbacks and baggy jeans, with gleaming studs in his ears) acts as an urban-reaching retort to his country surroundings. (It’s also just a couple of years off-trend, as it probably would be so many miles out from the cities of his dreams; the film is strong on such tacitly observed details.) Jeremie lives on the family sawmill with his father, Regis (Roy Dupuis), and his older brother; when the latter leaves town with his new bride, the teenager’s wanderlust grows ever more impatient. The boys’ mother is not in evidence: Whether she passed away or succumbed to similarly restless urges is left for the audience to ponder.
When not helping out in the mill, Jeremie spends his free time burning rubber, getting high and goofing around with childhood friends Francis (Remi Goulet) and P.O. (Charles-Emile Lafleur). Though it’s increasingly evident — first to the viewer, though gradually to Jeremie himself — that he’s outgrowing their company, he’s not yet mature enough to sustain a serious relationship with sometime g.f. Maya (a winning Willia Ferland-Tanguay). Caught in limbo between putting away childish things and accepting the burden of adulthood, the lad whiles away a long, hot summer — as if any other kind exists in this genre — waiting for a sign as to his next move. When it comes, it’s arguably via the actions and crises of his elders: Regis views the future of the family business with a skepticism that matches his son’s, while a spirit of mobilized animosity toward the kids’ local drug dealer surges hotly across the village.
Peloquin’s lean but flavorful script, co-written with Sarah Levesque, resolves these collected tensions — or leaves them to fester — in much the manner you’d expect, but the characters’ modest triumphs and occasionally devastating setbacks are touching all the same. (It helps that a trio of editors have pruned proceedings to a running time of 76 minutes, ideal for the pic’s ambitions and outlook.) There’s a palpable sense here of the spirit of concern, edging into oppressive neighborly judgment, that binds tight populations like this one; it’s as easy to see how our bright but under-stimulated hero is a product of this community as it is to sympathize with his desire to flee.
L’Ecuyer, who first made a youthful impact in the 2008 festival charmer “It’s Not Me, I Swear!,” plays Jeremie beautifully, etching brief, involuntary flashes of boyish desperation amid the character’s swaggering pride and petulance. He’s perfectly matched by Canadian film veteran Dupuis, tender-tough but wry-humored as a father whose sturdy foundations might not bear his children’s closest scrutiny.