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Wild Reeds (André Téchiné) 1994


    Though it’s telling the stories of a group of youths that are poised on the cusp of adulthood, André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds feels oddly muted in its observations of its characters. Usually, movies about young adults are overly dynamic and loud extravaganzas that celebrate graduation from childhood as if it were an Olympic event, but Wild Reeds remains low-key throughout, even when catchy pop songs are playing on its soundtrack. Perhaps the setting, which is France at the end of the Algerian War, is part of the reasoning behind the moody and unarticulated glumness that hangs over the film, but it lends distinctness to the movie, in any case, and as the movie progresses, that subdued tone becomes the movie’s greatest strength, since it keeps the film’s plot events from ever feeling melodramatic. Telling the stories of four young adolescents at a boarding school, Téchiné manages to raise issues with such a light, careful touch that his script never becomes about the issues instead of its specific circumstances. I can’t think of many other films that deal with war, political strife, or homosexuality, as thoroughly as this one does without overstepping into dogmatic lecturing. There’s so much astute observation and nuance in the portrayals of the characters here that when you combine it with the excellent ensemble acting (with an especially good turn by Élodie Bouchez, as Maïté, the only girl in the group of lead characters), you’re almost willing to forgive every imaginable flaw.

      The film’s insight and restraint are almost enough to make you ignore some rough spots, but they still are worth mentioning. Téchiné tarts up the movie with unnecessarily showy camera movements, and instead of approximating the movement of the characters, as they seem intended to do, they always pull you out of the action, and remind you that, yes, you are indeed watching a movie. Otherwise, the rest of the film is rather gracefully naturalistic, so the inclusion of this sort of formalist directorial showmanship seems especially distracting. The plot also grows disappointingly contrived in spots, particularly when dealing with the wanderings of Henri (Frédéric Gorny), the slightly older, sullen Algerian socialist who profoundly affects each of the other kids. There are also some superfluous scenes that show Maïté’s mother in a mental hospital that seem clumsily integrated into what is otherwise a specifically focused film. These are major flaws, especially in a film that's as tightly controlled as this one, but so much of Wild Reeds is so superior that it remains one of the more rewarding coming of age films of recent years.


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Jeremy Heilman