Aspiring filmmakers struggling with how to be specific yet universal — especially when it comes to material steeped in autobiography — should do themselves a favor and get to know French filmmaker Diane Kurys’ wonderfully unsentimental, captivating 1977 debut, “Peppermint Soda” (“Diabolo Menthe”), which chronicles a year in the life of two teenage sisters, children of divorce, and was drawn from Kurys’ own girlhood.
Newly released in a 2K restoration timed for its 40th anniversary, the film is a kinetic slide show of incipient maturity’s roiling promise that Kurys makes both era-vivid (hello early ’60s) and timelessly appealing (hello grades, teachers, parents, boys, freedom and politics). Especially for audiences who took to Bo Burnham’s summer indie hit “Eighth Grade,” a heart-stopping time capsule about an outcast middle schooler, the tart, clear-eyed observations and swerving realities in Kurys’ coming-of-age classic make for a fitting hands-across-the-generations companion piece.
When the summer of 1963 ends after an extended stay with their father on the Normandy coast, 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and 15-year-old Frédérique (Odile Michel) greet the new year at their rigidly run lycee in very different places. While Frédérique, outgoing and popular, floats on the confident high of a hot-and-heavy relationship with a smitten boy, withdrawn Anne is in that impatient phase when sexuality is mostly posturing, worry and misinformation. That makes schoolwork an untended afterthought, but with consequences when that means drawing the unwanted attention of mom (a wonderful Anouk Ferjac) and the threat of boarding school.
Kurys shrewdly builds the movie with bits and pieces, naturalistic vignettes that hit certain emotional notes (bliss, resignation, rebellion) with staccato accuracy yet carry an overall tone that suggests a revealing pan across a pair of expanding consciousnesses. (It’s a talent she would explore to even richer effect in her outstanding 1982 drama “Entre Nous,” which explored her parents’ marriage.)
The first half, centered on Klarwein’s disarming portrayal, her crooked mouth like a poker tell, is powered by Anne’s gurgling energy of academic malaise, eager friendship, biological issues and the dashed pleasures inherent in being the younger, more-scrutinized sibling.
The second half is more sobering, as we watch Frédérique — breezily captured by Michel — tire of shallow companions (of both sexes) and flirt with older concerns, like her conservative school’s biggest bugaboo: girls becoming political. The Algerian war’s lingering effects draw Frédérique away from rich best friend Perrine (Coralie Clément) and closer to Pascale (Corinne Dacla), a thoughtful schoolmate who memorably cuts short a frivolous civics class exchange to deliver a solemn account about witnessing a fatal police response to a student protest.
For a first film, Kurys, at the time a disillusioned actress-writer who reportedly had never held any kind of camera before, showed a remarkable assurance visually and rhythmically when mixing the serious with the playful. Working with the great cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, a master of light and texture who is now a Hollywood mainstay, Kurys discovered an observant, lived-in style with room for both Chaplinesque moments of comedy — usually involving school antics surrounding caricatured teachers — and sensitively handled scenes that get to the complex heart of adolescence’s isolation and frustration.
“Peppermint Soda” is, like its summer-cooling namesake, a concoction that signifies childhood, a refreshment likely to spark a memory. Kurys’ fondness for that time of fumbling and outgrowing is as fresh today as it was when it heralded a perceptive new filmmaking talent, especially because underneath these affectionately extracted remembrances is an unshakeable sisterly bond — of admiration, exasperation and watchfulness — that gives the story of Anne and Frédérique a deeper hold. It’s what makes Kurys’ flashcard dedication, crammed into the first minutes, funny initially and somehow poignant in reflection: “To my sister — who still hasn’t given back my orange sweater.”
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 31, Ahrya Fine Arts. Beverly Hills