There’s nothing really unusual about Juliette (Alexane Jamieson). She lives with her single father (Robin Aubert) and college-bound brother Pierre-Luc (Christophe Levac) in a nondescript Quebec suburb. She has a best friend, Léane (Léanne Désilets), who shares her resentment for the vapidity of high school; she has a crush on Liam (Antoine Desrochers), the school bad-boy who looks like a grungier version of the Hanson brothers. The thing that most defines Juliette’s day-to-day interactions is the fact that she’s overweight — and even that only comes up when true assholes are concerned. What really drives Juliette is this idea that she marches to the beat of her own drum and that the suburbs and their stultifying sameness will never be able to contain her, which is once again a thought that nearly every teenager has, thinking they’re the only ones to think it.
There is, of course, a lot I related to in Jeune Juliette, Anne Émond’s fourth feature and first outright comedy. Like Juliette, I grew up with a misplaced resentment for my surroundings and this idea that I would “fit in” elsewhere by virtue of it being somewhere else. Like Juliette, I was overweight – and in my case and hers, the mockery felt less targeted than defaulting on me, the chosen target simply because there weren’t that many fat kids and making fun of a fat kid seems to be de rigueur in any high school. (Gotta nuke somebody!) With shades of Todd Solondz and Eighth Grade in its profound and unwavering desire to strip any concept of hipness or swag from teenagedom, Jeune Juliette certainly presents as a cynical deconstruction of the teenage myth. In actuality, Jeune Juliette is one of the most optimistic and downright nicest movies about teenage malaise.
It’s not like Émond doesn’t put her protagonist through the wringer. Though she’s bright and funny and personable, Juliette is quick to turn on people if things don’t go her way, and the bizarre balance of self-loathing and self-aggrandizing that seems to drive her constantly pushes to throw out anyone or anything that isn’t actively making her cooler. As school draws to an end, the students in her eighth grade class are paired with sixth-graders who will be moving into the school in the coming year. Based on her perceived maturity and sensitivity, Juliette is paired with Arnaud (Gabriel Beaudet), a high-functioning kid somewhere on the spectrum who has trouble with crowds and sarcasm. Hanging out with Arnaud certainly isn’t going to win Juliette any popularity points and, even though he proves to be quite lovable and honest in a way the people around her are not, Juliette winds up having a pretty tortured relationship with her own feelings towards Arnaud.
That Arnaud is not presented as a punchline or a plot device is a testament to the way Émond lets the film unfold organically, with little in the way of after-school special upping of the stakes. Nothing is resolved tidily (if resolved at all) but the film also doesn’t really go for the embarrassment jugular. Where a film like Eighth Grade functions almost as a kind of horror film tapping into the primordial muck of our deepest fears, Jeune Juliette is more into the organic and uneven nature of a teenager’s relationships with the world around her. Liam’s kind of a pickle-dick dreamboat in the traditional sense, but when he goes up on stage to perform in his hilariously rigid rock band, he’s less Lizard King and more tone-deaf gecko. Juliette’s relationship with her older brother — despite the fact that he doesn’t really want the task of jogging so his sister can run — is one of the more lovingly depicted sibling dynamics I’ve seen lately. Her friendship with Léane is similarly given to a push-and-pull as her best friend realizes fairly early on that she’s into women and grapples with what that means considering she really only has one friend — a female one, to boot.
It’s relationships that form the core of Jeune Juliette rather than cynicism or nostalgia. Émond rather astutely notes that it’s our relationships with others that form us at that age rather than our relationship to ourselves. (It’s very rare that 14-year-olds seek to “find themselves” in life — or movies, for that matter.) If it has any major flaw, it’s the very teenage flaw of assuming that the very banal things that seem like the end of the world to us are completely incomprehensible to the outside world. In other words, by being so nice and genial, Jeune Juliette perhaps hits less hard than its ilk. But if a movie’s biggest flaw is not being as fucked up as Fat Girl or Welcome to the Dollhouse or making me physically uncomfortable to the point of needing to walk it off like Eighth Grade, that’s probably on me, not them. ■
Jeune Juliette opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 9. Watch the trailer here: