A movie screen is like a firefly. Its iridescent glow can be hypnotic. Sitting in darkness and watching light radiate a world of wonder, one can be drawn into the world of movies just as easily as the charm of a firefly can keep one entertained for hours.
Fireflies are hard to come by, though, and they’re almost as blink-and-you’ll-miss-them as Canadian films in Canadian theatres. Quebecois films are even trickier to catch, especially in Toronto, and it’s worth acting quickly to see Sébastien Pilote’s richly understated drama The Fireflies Are Gone (La disparition des lucioles) in its inevitably brief theatrical run. Staring at the film is like catching a rare sight of fireflies and lingering in their glow. This film is one to savour, slowly and quietly, on a calm summer night.
The Fireflies Are Gone, which won the prize for Best Canadian Feature in the face of showier fare at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is a welcome respite from obnoxiously loud superhero movies, franchise films, and VFX extravaganzas. This film never goes for big moments, dramatic outbursts, or showoffy aesthetics. It’s an unabashedly slice-of-life drama with bursts of melodramatic music à la Douglas Sirk or an Arcade Fire song punctuating its otherwise sedate cinematic style.
The film stars Karelle Tremblay (Les êtres chers) as Léonie, a restless and mildly rebellious teen growing up in a small anonymous riverside town in Quebec. Léo just seems bored with life and completely detached from her surroundings when the film introduces us to her on her birthday dinner in which she endures all the obligatory coming-of-age questions—“How’s school going?”, “What are your summer plans?”, “What job do you have lined up?”—before she makes abruptly leaves her family in favour of her friends and some poutine. It’s Léo’s first French exit in the film, but her angsty demeanour promises that it won’t be her last.
At the greasy spoon diner, which is pretty much the only place kids can hang out that isn’t the bush, Léo strikes up the interest of a thirtysomething guitar teacher named Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant), whose overly anglicized moniker underscores just how basic he is. Their relationship has a whiff of garage band Lolita, but Pilote keeps things fairly chaste in a town that’s still run by the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Léo quickly sets the boundaries by picking up a guitar and cozying up to Steve for lessons on the provision that she will inevitably lose interest in the hobby after a month, as she does with all things.
It’s easy to see why Léo is so disengaged. Her hometown offers few opportunities and, like many dreamers who don’t live in the bustling metropolises, she yearns to escape. Her dad (Luc Picard) returns intermittently from a job up north after the local factory went bust and her mom (Marie-France Marcotte) is now shacking up with the populist d-bag radio host (François Papineu) who turned the union against Léo’s father, so Léo’s home is an awkward, intimate reminder of the false pretense of friendliness on which the town resides. How anyone finds agency and discovers themselves in communities they’ll inevitably have to leave is a challenge, and Tremblay’s remarkably wise performance creates a young woman who is restless and rootless, uncomfortable with her place in the world. The film is especially effective for the dry humour and cynicism that simmers in Tremblay’s performance.
One could take Léo as a stand-in for Quebec as Pilote uses the popular, accessible trope of the coming-of-age genre to meditate upon la belle province and its place in the world as the young woman grows up surrounded by the quickly paced ROC. The Fireflies Are Gone, like Pilote’s previous films Le démantèlement and The Salesman, slows down to observe and reflect upon a changing way of life. The cinematography by Michel Le Veaux is consistently striking, yet refuses to romanticise the setting with quaint pastoral images one often finds in provincial tales. Pilote does for Quebec what the Dardennes do for Belgian cinema with this finely observed portrait of working class life.
The Fireflies Are Gone opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on July 5 and is available on home video.