Though we are undeniably youth-obsessed as a culture, adolescence is an area not dealt with well on film, which is one of several reasons "Wild Reeds" is such an unexpectedly satisfying experience. Its cast of young French actors is completely unknown in this country, its focus on teen-age pain and confusion is hardly fresh territory, and its director, Andre Techine, has been working steadily for decades in his homeland without causing much of a stir over here.
But "Reeds" defies all preconceptions. Deserving winner of four Cesars (the French version of the Oscars) for best picture, best director, best screenplay and best new female discovery, the film's most impressive accomplishment is to remind us what sensitive filmmaking is really all about.
For few terms in the critical lexicon have been abused as much as sensitivity, the label that tends to be placed on films that have the temerity to bludgeon tears out of an overmanipulated audience. "Wild Reeds," by contrast, treats the troublesome teen-age years with an almost surgical dispassion that turns out to be artful and moving.
Equally important, this is an intimate film that allows its confused, searching characters the space to be themselves, to discover what is in their hearts by the awkward but human process of trial and error. As a result, it is easier for viewers to become involved in their difficult process of determining who they are and where they fit in the indifferent larger world.
"Wild Reeds" is set in rural France in 1962, a time when society was torn by its own version of Vietnam, the Algerian conflict that pitted that country's desire for freedom against the refusal of Algerian-born French nationals to allow that to happen peacefully.
That trouble at first seems remote from the boarding school where Francois (Gael Morel) and Serge (Stephane Rideau) are classmates. While Serge is a farmer's son just trying to get by, Francois is an intellectual who enjoys art films and the company of Maite (Elodie Bouchez), the daughter of the boys' exacting teacher.
But what is happening in Algeria slowly makes itself felt, first in the wedding of Serge's brother, a soldier on leave from the war, and then in the arrival of Henri (Frederick Corny). A refugee from Algeria and bitter opponent of independence who keeps his ear attached to a portable radio for news of the conflict, the older and more sophisticated Henri unmistakably exudes what Francois calls an "exiled to Hicksville" hauteur.
Henri's implacable conservatism, which clashes with Maite's fervid communism, is only one of any number of conflicts that surface as an intricate web of attraction, competition and irritation unexpectedly unites these four young people. All three boys are drawn to the naturally sensuous Maite (the part won actress Bouchez the best new female discovery Cesar), but Francois also finds himself sexually attracted to Serge, with results more complicated than anyone anticipates.
This lack of simplicity underscores what is best about "Wild Reeds," whose Techine, Gilles Taurand and Olivier Massart script knows enough not to attempt any kind of neat resolution of such emotionally turbulent material. The film perfectly understands the tentative experimentation and frequent self-loathing of adolescence, the difficulty of knowing whom to trust and how much to trust them, as well as how incendiary an age this can be, with uncertain psyches ready to explode at minimal provocation.
Director Techine has kept a firm but gentle hand on the proceedings, never letting the cast's uniformly fine actors stray from the truth. Dancing to vintage American rock 'n' roll tunes such as Del Shannon's "Runaway," these young people are the wild reeds of the film's title, buffeted but not broken by powerful winds while impatiently "waiting for life to begin."
* No MPAA rating. Times guidelines: a few extremely discreet scenes of lovemaking.
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'Wild Reeds' Frederic Corny: Henri Gael Morel: Francois Elodie Bouchez: Maite Stephane Rideau: Serge An Ima Films, Films Alain Sarde, Canal+, La Sept/Arte, Ima Productions, SFP Productions co-production, released by Strand Releasing. Director Andre Techine. Producers Alain Sarde, Georges Benayoun. Screenplay by Andre Techine, Gilles Taurand, Olivier Massart. Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie. Editor Martine Giordano. Costumes Elisabeth Tavernier. Set designer Pierre Soula. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
* In limited release. Sunset 5, West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500. NuWilshire, West Los Angeles, (310) 394-8099. Edwards Town Center, South Coast Plaza, (714) 751-4184.