If you throw a rock at the Canadian film industry, you’re bound to hit a coming-of-age drama set in the rural or suburban parts of the country. This year, the first rock has landed itself on Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s Goddess of the Fireflies, an adaptation of Geneviève Pettersen’s novel of the same name. Taking place around the mid to late 1990s (with references to Sony’s Discman, Kurt Cobain and Pulp Fiction tossed about), the film follows 16-year-old Catherine (Kelly Depeault) as her parents’ divorce coincides with her own life spiralling out of control. Forced to live with her mother (Caroline Néron) and dealing with a father (Normand d’Amour) who shows his love with $1000 cheques, Catherine escapes her depressing family life through a group of slackers at her school. She drinks, smokes, falls in and out of love, and develops an addiction to mescaline. It’s a carefree, self-destructive lifestyle that inevitably leads to severe consequences for Catherine and her friends.
Carried on Depeault’s Shoulders
From a Canadian perspective, these films are so common that the big question while watching is what exactly this does to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack. Unfortunately, the answer here is not that much. However, Barbeau-Lavalette (Inch’Allah) does an assured job of retracing the steps of films that have come before it. Relying heavily on handheld camerawork and a shallow focus with only a few flourishes (a little girl wandering an empty parking lot carrying balloons, a repeated image of Catherine underwater to show her emotional state), the familiar aesthetics means much of Goddess of the Fireflies has to be carried on lead Depeault’s shoulders. It’s a task she deliver pretty well, transforming from a shy high-schooler to nihilistic rebel while letting herself become more vulnerable as time goes on. If there’s only one takeaway from the film, it’s that Depeault is an actor to keep an eye on.
The rest of Goddess of the Fireflies operates just fine, as far as these kinds of films go. It’s capable enough to avoid being bad but hews too close to convention to leave a strong impression. What does feel somewhat refreshing is Barbeau-Lavalette’s frankness in her portrayal of sex and drugs, using explicit imagery without ever crossing over into gratuitous territory. It shows an effort to approach the story from within its own characters, rather than from the perspective of someone outside it.