The more things change, the more they stay the same in this lean, partially satisfying doc on teens and their strifes.
Bienvenue à F.L. (TIFF Review)
The definitive teen film of my generation is John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985). I saw it in the theater on its initial release, I’ve watched it countless times on cable and home video, I’ve introduced it to my kids, I’ve seen it in the theater again on re-release, and I’ve even hosted screenings of it in my local cinema (as recently as May, 2015). There is a quote in that endlessly quotable film that I kept coming back to as I watched Bienvenue à F.L., Geneviève Dulude-De Celles’ first feature film. Carl the Janitor (John Kapelos) says to the lamenting Assistant Principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason), “C’mon Vern, the kids haven’t changed. You have.” If there is anything this documentary proves, it’s that quote.
In an effort to do something different and positive, Gabrielle Chaput enlists the students of a Quebec high school to participate in the “Inside Out Project.” The task put forth to the school’s 1,162 students is simple: pair with a randomly assigned student, get to know them (even if just a little bit), and photograph them in front of a background of white with a black-dotted pattern. The resulting photos will then be plastered on the school’s drab exterior, creating a collage of the present day’s student body meant to celebrate them and offer an interesting alternative to the drab grey walls that remind many of the kids of a prison. Documentarian Dulude-De Celles is there to capture the event, and much more.
This is really a tale of three films. The first film—the best film—is populated with teenagers in fairly extreme close-ups discussing directly to the camera, and in what seems to be considerable candor, myriad issues that face them as high schoolers. They discuss cliques and acceptance into groups (or the sad lack thereof). They discuss the pressures teens face—pressures from school and parents and friends and cliques and jobs and romantic interests and the various combinations thereof and so on. They discuss the socioeconomic realities of their lives, mostly defined by their wardrobes. Some students confess, passively, to modifying their behavior so as to be accepted by the masses. Others boast, also passively, to clinging to their individualism, masses be damned.
In this best film, every student’s take is as powerful and riveting as the next because of how honest each is. And it’s not as if these statements and sentiments are necessarily negative; they’re simply statements of fact that, when delivered by today’s teens, ring heavy with truth. They are also devoid of the drama one might expect from a documentary about teens of today. There is no talk of drugs. There is no talk of sex. There is no talk of violence. While it might be easy to criticize a film about teens that lacks these issues, I prefer to view it as a positive that a documentary with teens as its subject can still find compelling matter without resorting to the salacious.
The second film is where the good ends, sadly. In between these video confessionals are examples of what some teens do when they are not in school. One plays guitar and he is shown playing a song. Another is into parkour, and he is shown with his friends scaling gutters and somersaulting on rooftops. Another pair of teens are amateur filmmakers and shoot a film in one of their basements. All of this is fine, and it all illustrates what makes these teens happier than what school can provide. It just grinds the film to a near halt is all, because it’s not interesting in the least. Bienvenue à F.L. is already lean at 74 minutes, but much of it is padded with this kind of filler (honestly, do we need to see all the makeup a prom attendee applies)? There is enough of this filler to make one consider that there wasn’t enough “there” there to keep the interesting parts of the doc the dominating thread.
The third film is pure frustration. A main theme of the ongoing story is the Inside Out Project. It is introduced early, and it treats the viewer to a scene of kids taking pictures of each other for the project. But nothing is ever developed in terms of how these random pairs of kids interact. I’m not one to usually say when a film should have something in it that it doesn’t, but in this case, much was made early about randomizing the pairs—as if two kids from wildly different cliques, kids who might not ever interact, are suddenly forced to collaborate, with the results to be revealed in the film. This never happens, and it’s terribly disappointing.
I cited the quote from The Breakfast Club because as I listened to the kids speak to the camera, I found myself harkening back to my high school days. Despite being part of a graduating class of less than 100 kids, and being part of a high school with less than 400 total students, my triumphs and tragedies and fears and realities were no different than those of these subjects. The same can be said for my teenage daughters. So what Carl the Janitor said holds true: kids don’t change; we do. We grow up and move on, putting high school behind us, and leaving for the coming generations the same general fears and frustrations. The details might differ (my youth was more about Pac-Man than parkour), but the sentiment and the themes remain the same.
Bienvenue à F.L. is one of those films that will mean different things to different generations of people, and yet still mean the same thing to everyone. In the end, though, the collage of experiences, like the collage of pictures taken for the Inside Out Project, is better suited as a living yearbook for the students showcased than it is as a true documentary.