Director Sebastien Pilote’s ongoing study of Quebec lives running out of options continues apace with “The Fireflies Are Gone.” This third feature (his first in five years) is, like its predecessors “The Salesman” and “The Auction,” a neatly observed character portrait in a well-detailed small-town setting. But in contrast to the middle-aged protagonists of his prior films, whose lives were already winding down after decades of toil, the heroine here is just at the start of adulthood. And as she obstinately keeps reminding more responsible types, she has no plans for what she’ll do with the rest of it. This is a satisfying, slightly mournful seriocomedy that’s equal parts cynical, hopeful, and ambivalent. It’s also, in Pilote’s now-established style, writ so small and low-key that it may not travel far beyond the festival circuit and standard Canadian distribution outlets.
First impressions aren’t all that flattering to Leo (Karelle Tremblay), whom we meet brattily shrugging off the good tidings of grownups giving her an 18th birthday dinner. In fact, she soon abandons those well-wishes without even a goodbye, failing to return from the bathroom in order to go hang with some friends. She has the jaded know-it-all air typical of some teens, unaccompanied by much actual knowledge. Her long-suffering mother (Marie-France Marcotte) doesn’t want that attitude lounging around the house all summer, insisting her only child get a seasonal job. Leo settles for being the night custodian of a public park’s baseball field. It’s something that holds no particular interest for her, but that seems to be what she prefers. Commitments and attachments are not her thing.
By chance she meets not-particularly-friendly Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant) in a diner, and when she runs across him again, pursues their casual connection with unusual avidity. He teaches guitar, so she buys one in order to take lessons. Steve isn’t exactly a prize catch: He’s probably twice her age, lives in his elderly mom’s basement, and despite considerable talent (actor-musician Brillant gets ample opportunity to demonstrate his facility from classical to metal solos), has apparently never wanted to join a band or otherwise get the hell outta Dodge. Yet she finds him intriguing, and he finds her mercurial nature entertaining.
Other factors on her mostly-passive attitude this particular summer have longer histories. Leo perpetually squabbles with mom and insists on being rude to her stepfather, conservative talk-radio personality Paul (Francois Papineau), in part because she blames him for her parents’ breakup. It’s not that simple: He and Leo’s father Sylvain (Luc Picard) were on opposite sides of a labor dispute that ultimately closed the local mill. Union organizer Sylvain then had no choice but to move elsewhere for work, his marriage crumbling as a result. Now he’s employed far to the north, coming “home” briefly every couple months to a sparsely furnished apartment and his daughter’s familiar complaints.
Though it never feels aimless, Pilote’s script is not particularly plot-driven. The major arc is the rise and fall of Leo and Steve’s relationship, which itself is fairly low-drama. There are also shifts in her understanding of the parental figures in her life. But the writer-director isn’t about to tie all our heroine’s loose ends into a neat bow. In fact, at the end, her behavior remains as petulant as ever, and what if anything she’s learned over the summer’s course is murky.
Nonetheless, there’s a sense of some mysterious and encouraging form of closure, underlined by the eponymous firefly phenomenon — a lyrical motif that might easily have played as pretentiously unnecessary, but which actually hits a needed narrative sweet spot.
Tremblay is pleasingly natural, refusing to soften the less sympathetic edges of a character with much emotional maturing to do. The supporting turns by familiar Quebec screen faces are all expert. But the film’s secret weapon is Brillant (of “C.R.A.Z.Y.”), who brings a sly, centered heart to a figure too content with his humble lot to be the sad sack one initially expects.
The entire assembly is thoughtful and attractive, boosted considerably not only by an eclectic mix of Francophone and other pre-existing song tracks, but in particular by Philippe Brault’s original score, which is romantically lush in a way that seems almost incongruous for the story it accompanies. Yet that contrast works to provide levels of bemused irony and bigger-picture commentary that really make “Fireflies” take flight, becoming more than the sum of its deliberately modest parts.