This piece is written by our guest writer Redmond Bacon.
Coming of age can be a messy process. Caught in a limbo between the dull present and an unknowable future, teenagers have to navigate both their sense of self and who they would like to become. For Léo (Karelle Tremblay), only a month away from finishing school, the burden of expectation becomes too much. Not only does she tell her mother’s friends that she doesn’t know what she wants to do next, but she actually runs away from her own birthday dinner. Reminiscent of when Lady Bird, annoyed at her mother, simply jumps out of the car, this is a clear signal that this girl is going to live her life on her own terms, much to the consternation of those around her.
A great central performance is a crucial component of any coming of age story. We have to be sold on the emotions of our protagonist so we feel along with her. If this performance isn’t up to scratch, then these developments can feel clichéd and predictable. When it works, one can re-experience the progression into adulthood anew. The Fireflies are Gone features one such performance by Karelle Tremblay, who takes an archetypal role and moulds her into a unique creation. Both attentive to the world while bristling against its expectation of her, Léo knows she is too big for her small town. Her problem is that she still has to stay there a little while longer.
One night she locks eyes with an older man named Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant) in a diner. He is a musician who lives in his mother’s basement, making money by teaching guitar lessons. When asked why he doesn’t play with other people, he admits that he prefers to be by himself. While in most stories like this the girl would develop an unadvised (and potentially creepy) relationship with the older man, director Sébastien Pilote has something far more interesting in mind. The two are instead bonded by their sense of isolation from the rest of the world.
Léo tells him (and no one else) that she would like to be a writer, but suffers from the problem of not liking people all that much. This attitude is partially a front, but its rooted in painful issues to do with her family. We learn that her father (Luc Picard) tried to unionise his fellow workers for better conditions but ended up turning the whole town against him when the mill he worked at was closed down. Therefore, like a sailor, he works up north for weeks at a time, only coming back to see her daughter briefly. Her stepfather (François Papineau) is a conservative radio host — preaching against welfare and the dangerous power of unions — who was crucial in dismantling her father’s presence and the reason he had to leave. His voice is everywhere around the town, following Léo around like a constant ringing in her ear. In one early segment, he laments the fact that the fireflies in town have all but disappeared, trying to link it to a loss in traditional values. This couches Léo’s conflicts within a strong sociopolitical context — situated in this dead-end town, it is up to her to either conform or leave.
Initially, the score feels at odds with the film, but this contrast ends up encapsulating these tensions well. Heavy on luscious and romantic strings, it creates the sense that something mysterious is constantly lingering around the corner. This enigmatic tone is crucial to this film which doesn’t want to do things by the book. Perhaps even more than Lady Bird, The Fireflies are Gone subverts the kind of climactic scenes you would expect from a coming-of-age movie. For example, she may go to the end-of-year prom, but it is treated like an afterthought rather than the big event similar films structure themselves around. Rather the best moments are the most prosaic — such as Léo learning chords from Steve and the conversations she has with her father. Pilote has a great eye for the small details, recalling the movies of Stephen Cone in the way he creates a deep sense of contemplation from simple situations.
This film teaches that life is a lot about perspective. As Léo says, describing the bay the post-industrial town rests on: “[It] can be looked at two ways. If you look this way, its an opening on the world. The other way, and it’s a dead-end.” The Fireflies are Gone gives us both perspectives and manages to choose neither, instead straddling an enigmatic middle ground that gives it an uncommon power. It may be a familiar story, but Pilote makes it feel wonderfully fresh.