“To my sister, who still hasn’t given back my orange pullover” reads Diane Kurys’ cheeky dedication in the opening to her newly restored feature debut, “Peppermint Soda.” Set over the course of a single school year, bookended by summer vacations, the breezy snapshot-style narrative tracks the lives of thirteen-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and fifteen-year-old Frédérique (Odile Michel) as they encounter the clumsiness and cruelties of coming-of-age. But the heart of the film is the relationship between the siblings and the unspoken love and solidarity that binds them, even through incidents of childish unkindness and coldness to one another.
While the episodic framework is familiar, with strong echoes of Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and “Small Change,” the texture and insight are uniquely Kurys’. As the school year starts in the fall of 1963, the reverberations of the Algerian war are still being felt in France. Roll call on the first day of school ends with an Algerian student left in tears, alone in the courtyard, her name absent from any class list. Later in the film, Kurys slyly captures graffiti scrawled on a wall stating, OAS = SS. Amidst this politically charged atmosphere, Frédérique announces her stand against fascism, declaring, “You have to choose sides.” The fallout results in the loss of her best friend Perrine (Coralie Clément), but the gain of the sympathy and kinship of Pascale (Corinne Dacla) who, in what is not coincidentally one of the film’s longest and most moving sequences, describes watching street protests against right-wing bombings with her family, the police brutality to that led to the death of a student protester, and attending the funeral that followed.
Two years is a yawning chasm of time during adolescence, and for the younger Anne, politics remains an abstraction. When news of the assassination of John F. Kennedy arrives, the sorrowful sobs of her teacher — who writes Bousset’s “We all must die and drift towards a bottomless pit, that recognizes neither kings or princes” on the blackboard for her students to contemplate — remains an alien response to Anne and her classmates. Instead, it’s sexual and romantic curiosity that dominates their conversations. Anne, boldly claims to have already bedded a boy, though it’s clear she’s grossly misinformed about what the act entails. But she gleans what she can about relationships from the passionate letters she intercepts from Frédérique’s summer boyfriend.
Indeed, boys and men are largely on the edge of Anne and Frédérique’s experiences, and those that do have interludes in their lives often leave a disappointing impression. Frédérique begs to go on a camping trip with her boyfriend, but the time together with him only leaves her disillusioned about the person she imagined he was. The sisters’ father (Michel Puterflam), who is divorced from their mother (Anouk Ferjac), is an occasional presence, behind on child support, and emotionally distant. Meanwhile, Frédérique becomes heartbreakingly aware of how her and her sister’s transforming bodies draw unwanted from male attention, from the leering eye of a salesman to a pass made by the married father of one of her schoolyard friends.
However, through all their various hardships and heartbreaks, the resiliency between Anne and Frédérique is the thread that holds the fragmentary plot together. Even as they push and pull at each other — Frédérique trying to assert her own independence away from Anne; Anne desperate to keep up with her sister — there’s an unshakeable and quiet bedrock between them, an alliance that lasts far longer than any squabbles, disagreements are arguments that flare up through their day to day lives.
Drawing on her own life as inspiration with naturalistic ease, it’s no surprise that Kurys so effectively and effortlessly is attuned to the minute complexity of these characters. What’s truly remarkable is that prior to this film, Kurys had “never held a camera or even taken a still photograph.” Nevertheless, it’s clear she deeply absorbed cinema, with the unfussy camerawork by Philippe Rousselot (who has largely spent the last couple decades on franchise movies like “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them,” “Sherlock Holmes,” and “Planet Of The Apes”) aiding Kurys’ highly observant, sometimes documentary-like form of storytelling.
When you’re a teenager, each day feels almost overwhelmingly monumental, and the magic of “Peppermint Soda” is making every one of the small stakes dramas of the adolescent journey feel vitally alive. The focus here isn’t necessarily in what happens to Anne and Frédérique, so much as how they survive it, with fierce loyalty to each other, in a world that they’re quickly learning won’t always treat them kindly. [B+]
“Peppermint Soda” opens on August 10th at New York City’s Quad Cinema.