There’s a reason so many horror films — specifically the classic slashers of the ’70s and ’80s — make teenagers their imperiled protagonists. It makes for fun, squirmy viewing to see the relatable vulnerabilities of that age, with its fumbling sexual encounters and peer-pressure anxieties, sliced open by whichever knife-wielding maniac or mask-wearing ghoul happens to be lumbering about. But Charlotte Le Bon’s striking, stylish, sweetly scary debut reverses the polarity, putting the wittily observed tale of a teenage crush front and center of a ghoul-free horror film, where all that goes bump in the night is an embarrassed kid trying to clean his sheets after a wet dream. Coming-of-age movies are usually, like growing up itself, some combination of funny, sad, rueful, awkward or frightening, but rarely are they so successfully all those things at once as in “Falcon Lake.”
This ambitious yet nimbly assured tonal mash-up is introduced in the opening shot, in which a girl’s body floats face down in a placid, forest-fringed lake, while the film’s title inscribes itself, in inkblot-parchment Gothic lettering, across the landscape. A little while after the last possible moment there could be a non-sinister explanation, the girl turns over nonchalantly and starts to swim. Whatever solitary game she was playing, it was only made morbid by the way it was observed: the gray glitter of the water, the glowering green hills beyond.
Time and again Le Bon plays this mischievous trick on us. A shot of an empty forest lane creeps in imperceptibly, long before the gaggle of chattering teens appears around the bend; an impromptu stolen-booze picnic happens under ominously buzzing pylons. Using the watchful compositions of DP Kristof Brandl’s lush, dark-edged 16mm photography and the glimmering pianos and eerie echoes of Shida Shahabi’s shivery score, the film telegraphs a darkly foreboding mood of which the characters, interacting naturally and normally, are unaware.
Sometimes, they even make jokes about it, as when “nearly 14”-year-old Bastien (Joseph Engel) and his Francophone family arrive at their summer vacation destination in the Canadian countryside, and thanks to the classic cabin-in-the-woods production design by Alex Hercules Desjardins, it could not look more ripe for ghastly or ghostly shenanigans. “Creepy,” remarks his mother Violette (Monia Chokri), on discovering the electricity isn’t working. They’ve come to spend some time with Violette’s longtime best friend Louise (Karine Gonthier-Hyndman), who comes as a package deal with her surly 16-year-old daughter Chloé (Sara Montpetit), with whom Bastien and his younger brother Titi (Thomas Laperrière) are to share a bedroom.
There’s only a couple of years’ difference between Bastien and Chloé, but the gulf in maturity between a boy of 13 and a girl of 16 is wider than the widest childhood summer lake. At first Chloé barely tolerates Bastien, who is caught amusingly between remaining the sweet kid and considerate older brother he’s always been, and the worldlier, more cavalier young adult he wants to be. But soon, as each discovers there’s more to the other than first appears, an easy chemistry evolves between them. For Bastien of course, it flares into a massive crush, not helped by the shared showers and adjoining beds of their closely confined living arrangements.
So much less schematic than many similar tales of the pain and elation of first love, for all the overt stylization, “Falcon Lake” really comes alive in the interactions between these two eccentric, interesting young people. Bastien, beautifully played by Engel (an easy pick for the “new Timothée Chalamet,” in case anyone’s sick of the old one) is a wonderfully rounded creation, both awkward and oddly self-assured, and really, properly funny to boot: You understand why Chloé, despite hunkier options afforded by the older boys nearby, might be drawn to Bastien in spite of herself.
Chloé, who in other hands could have been reduced to the enticing outline of a young boy’s fantasy, is similarly well-drawn. That Le Bon takes such mischievous pleasure in playing with the macabre tropes of the slasher flick suggests a deep kinship with the witchy, cynical young girl, whose chief amusement is staging grim death scenes, “Harold and Maude”-style, inspired by the story of a kid who drowned in this very lake. Gradually, she’s revealed to have her own deep wellspring of insecurity beneath a veneer of savoir-faire. That makes it all the more heartrending when Bastien unthinkingly betrays her, for no better reason than to momentarily make himself look big in the eyes of an older boy he actually cares nothing about.
“Your worst fear is way cooler than mine,” Bastien tells Chloé, to break the tension after she reveals a much more intimate secret (her terror at not fitting in) than he does (his paranoia that his parents might catch him masturbating). Like when Bastien runs to bring a tearful Chloé a cheer-up ice-cream, like when Chloé offhandedly includes Bastien in some gathering from which he thought he was excluded, the relationship between the two is marked by these casual tendernesses, observed with startling accuracy in banal moments.
The contrast between this normality and the mythic overtones of the “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th” or “Let’s Scare Jessica To Death” styling is a lot of what makes the film such a fresh take on a hackneyed genre. Turns out, it’s not quite true to say there are no ghosts in “Falcon Lake” when, despite its lightness and playful humor, so much here is ghostly. From the cold shimmer of a lake that conceals as much as it invites, to the bright skies that seem edged in dusk even at noon, everything in this immensely promising, superbly crafted debut, is haunted, and every bright, happy beginning anticipates a darker, melancholy end.