Growing up in a normal house in a normal street in a normal town, it’s pretty shocking to see films in which errant children cause havoc, or are under immense pressure from society. The films of Larry Clark, Harmony Korine or the Dardenne brothers have always shocked on a more visceral level than traditional horror films because it’s something that we know is actually happening, and it’s difficult to rationalise the action in the way that you can with a masked murderer (an incredibly rare occurrence) or a haunted house (simply not possible). That’s not to say that the teenagers in Nénette and Boni are anywhere near as damaged as the kids in Kids, or Gummo, but they are fighting with feelings, the likes of which they aren’t properly equipped to make sense of.
Nénette has absconded from boarding school. She turns up on the doorstep of Boni after meeting with one of his friends. While we meet both Nénette and Boni separately, their familial relationship isn’t immediately revealed to us. The reason for Boni’s return, which goes from side plot to the impetus for the final act, becomes a foil to Boni’s (literally) masturbatory existence, and his ongoing sexual obsession with an older woman who runs the local bakery in conjunction with her other half, played ably by Vincent Gallo in a surprisingly funny, down-to-earth role.
It’s a film about growing up and the choices that are sometimes forced upon us by life, shot in an extremely naturalistic way by stalwart Clair Denis DP Agnes Godard which only makes the final act, which could so easily have become soap opera histrionics, into a heartrending climax. Boni, played by Gregoire Colin, has a lugubrious and primal charm reminiscent of a young Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the rest of the cast have a grimy beauty of their own. Those with a head for the most French of French cinema will love it, but many will be left cold by Denis’s subtle, unintrusive style.