A young Quebecois girl slowly learns to color outside the lines in writer-director Genevieve Dulude-de Celles’ Berlinale award-winning narrative feature debut, a sensitive and tasteful coming-of-age story that would perhaps have been richer, and certainly more surprising, had it embraced that lesson too. “A Colony,” however, is a neatly rendered package that cycles through its familiar beats with earnest, thoughtful grace, and if Dulude-de Celles’ focus on her protagonist’s hesitance and insecurity can make for a slightly frustrating watch at times, the performances from her young cast still infuse the film with an appealing freshness.
Twelve-year-old Mylia (Émilie Bierre) lives near a First Nations reserve in Pierreville, a small town in the Quebec countryside, dismissively referred to as “the sticks” by one unwilling resident, but rendered relatively idyllic by Léna Mill-Reuillard and Etienne Roussy’s sun-blown, tousled cinematography. Her home life is defined by her parents’ marriage quietly fracturing in the background, and by her embarrassingly free-spirited little sister Camille (a delightful Irlande Côté) trying to resuscitate dead hens and dancing around the house to Joy Division. The withdrawn and insecure Mylia, starting at a high school where she doesn’t know anyone, is beset by social terrors that see her lock herself in a bathroom on the morning of her first day. It’s hinted she had some bullying problems at her last school, which perhaps exacerbate her hypersensitivity to her outsider status here.
The eternal choices in navigating high school politics — to conform or to rebel? — are embodied by two classmates: Jacinthe (Cassandra Gosselin-Pelletier) the popular, punch-swigging party girl whose flighty friendship seems to offer Mylia the social acceptance she craves; and Jimmy (incipient heartthrob Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie) an Abenaki boy who lives with his grandmother on the Pierreville reserve; Jimmy first rescues Camille from a crowd of taunting boys, and later wordlessly helps Mylia home when she gets drunk at Jacinthe’s party.
The very gentle battle for Mylia’s soul, between Jimmy’s gallant, proud individualism and the stifling silliness and early sexualization represented by Jacinthe, is something of a foregone conclusion: The film’s heartfelt intentions are never in doubt — if there are morals other than “be true to yourself” for this young-adult-targeted indie drama, they’re not going to be explored here. And more’s the pity, since just outside those proscribed lines there are unusual areas lightly touched on that could sustain a more full-blooded investigation: Jimmy’s relationship to his heritage, and his experience of racism and Canada’s colonialist history are telescoped into one classroom outburst; the plucky and precocious Camille’s defiant embrace of her weirdness could be give more room to breathe; even Mylia’s mother (Noémie Godin-Vigneau), an ex-ballet dancer undemonstratively withdrawing from her husband, has more story to her than Dulude-de Celles’ screenplay lets us in on.
While it’s laudable that these subplots are treated subtly, Mylia’s passivity and relative blandness can make her character seem like it hasn’t quite earned the film’s insistent focus. Worse, it can feel like the very real issues and experiences of the more compelling supporting characters exist only to provide life lessons for a not-especially deserving middle-class white girl. It’s hard not to become a little impatient with Mylia when she passes up the umpteenth chance to stand by Jimmy or to reciprocate Camille’s unceasing, quirky sisterly devotion.
And yet the cumulative power of Dulude-de Celles’ painstakingly close observation of Mylia — her eyes clouded and fearful behind a curtain of untended blonde hair — does pay off in the film’s unexpectedly moving final third, as the young girl starts to gain the glimmering beginnings of self-confidence and some spirit starts to shine through the character’s blank-slate timidity. One sequence, in which we hold on her face during an awkward fumble in a toilet stall at a school Halloween dance, is an acutely insightful and superbly performed instance of that most contradictory of moments: a child demonstrating her maturity by realizing that she wants to remain a child for a bit longer.
At one point, Mylia and Jimmy teach Camille how to ride her bike without stabilizers, and like so much in “A Colony,” it feels like a metaphor: As a careful and cared-for debut, the film, which won the Crystal Bear in the Generation 14-Plus sidebar at the Berlinale, gains in confidence and momentum as it progresses, leaving us eager to see where its young director will go now that the training wheels are off and the road up ahead is open.