Filmmakers attuned to the pulsating internal rhythms of apprehensive youths are special artists, and French-Canadian filmmaker Philippe Lesage is fast proving to be one of those, first with his 2015 narrative feature debut, “The Demons,” about a fear-ridden boy, and now with “Genèse” (“Genesis”), which explores the anxiety-laced terrain that is first love.
Working in a tradition of humanism and seriousness regarding the inner lives of children and teens that has bonded the work of Francois Truffaut and Louis Malle to moviegoers’ hearts, Lesage certainly has a ways to go before reaching those directors’ levels of emotional mastery. But he, nonetheless, offers up plenty of heartfelt intelligence and sublimity with his trio of exquisitely wracked adolescents, for whom awakened desire is as much a minefield as a thrilling new world.
For much of the two-hours-and-change running time, Lesage alternates between two of his three characters, step-siblings with separate lives but similar trajectories. Lanky, Salinger-devouring 16-year-old Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) is an acerbic class wit at a boys’ boarding school with an unexpressed crush on his quieter, hockey-playing best friend, Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte), while slightly older, bright-eyed Charlotte (Noée Abita) is at university dealing with the unexpected heartbreak that her longtime boyfriend, Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk), wants an open relationship.
In each thread, social strictures create an environment for our protagonists in which the processing of jumbled feelings, and efforts to liberate those emotions, carry consequences. At Guillaume’s aggressively heteronormative school, a history teacher’s explicit patter about female genitalia and insulting treatment of students is blithely accepted by his smirking students, while homophobic taunts from the dorm monitor mark the day’s close. Navigating his feelings about Nicolas eventually morphs into an instance of bad timing, but Guillaume’s emotional boldness is a treasurable quality, most heart-stoppingly dramatized when he delivers to his classmates a beautifully honest monologue of devotion — it’s a scene of self-expression unlike any other in teen-love cinema. As powerfully portrayed by Pellerin (who can be seen in a vastly different role on Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida”), Guillaume is a young man who trusts his puckish popularity and openness to protect him from humiliation.
Charlotte, meanwhile, is a case study in the limits young straight women encounter when searching for connection in a dating pool of callow, untrustworthy males. She finds some solace in clubbing with girlfriends, then discovers a sexual forthrightness in bouncing back with the older Theo (Maxime Dumontier), whose single-mindedly carnal attention toward her is initially a welcome match with her newfound erotic freedom. But Charlotte’s dormant sense of romantic propriety reemerges to clash with a libertine’s blasé attitude toward a sexual partner’s needs.
Lesage then introduces real peril to Guillaume’s and Charlotte’s stories, but with a coolly tragic sensibility that effectively communicates the hazards lying in wait for the passionate, misunderstood and vulnerable. That’s also when Lesage and his sympathetic, serenely regarding camera leave the siblings behind to transport us to a woodsy summer camp setting for a precious final vignette reintroducing his “Demons” lead character Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, returning), who is now a hesitant, guitar-playing teen discovering he has feelings for similarly shy attendee Beatrice (Émilie Bierre).
With ebullient folk music, blushing faces and innocent hand holding under the trees suddenly replacing the somber emo pop, shadowy instability and unrequited desire of Guillaume’s and Charlotte’s stories, it’s as if Lesage has made both a jarring narrative swerve and yet a sneakily poetic temporal feint. Some may feel like it’s an abandonment of two characters at a low point, but there’s a method in Lesage’s tonal shift to a scene of hearts first stirred. “Genèse” concludes as a sober reminder that the young always feel intensely, but that the years between the crush that shines and the ardor that confounds are short ones, indeed.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 4, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles