Every cinematic cabin in the woods suggests a place out of time. If you believe the movies, they’re either a) a dread-inducing home to all manner of spirits and masked killers which directly tie the cabin back to its haunted past; or b) an idyllic getaway for a teenager during a formative coming-of-age experience. The directorial debut of Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon is an unusual, immediately arresting combination, grounding its deeply sincere account of first love within the realm of gothic horror––here the urban myth of a girl who drowned in the nearby lake many summers prior.

This is a tale with which Chloé (Sara Montpetit) is obsessed. Throughout the course of Falcon Lake we see Chloe elaborately stage her own death, floating face-down in the lake only to turn upright and keep swimming like nothing happened. She may be, at 16, the oldest of the kids on the family holiday, but her obsession with the macabre is an identifiably adolescent trait, one recognizable to any millennial who took a while to grow out of their Tim Burton and My Chemical Romance phase. But she’s a world away from Bastien (Joseph Engel), the “nearly 14” protagonist who has been dragged to the Quebec countryside with his family to stay with Chloé’s mother, his mom’s childhood best friend. He’s at an awkward age where he’s finally grown out of hanging with his younger siblings but isn’t quite ready for the wider world just yet, opting to stay at home on his Nintendo Switch or watch anime wherever possible.

As he starts reluctantly spending time with Chloé, she takes delight in telling him every ghostly urban myth about the lake, warming to him as he gets intrigued by the stories. They start hanging out more, and he begins to get romantically infatuated in the way any straight teenage boy, given the chance to hang out with an older girl, would––gradually realizing that his first experience of something approaching love will be far more haunting than any ghost story could ever prove. It’s a testament to Falcon Lake that, when the reasoning for its unusual gothic style becomes apparent, it doesn’t become any less affecting, despite the bluntness of the genre metaphor. This is also aided by Kristof Brandl’s gorgeous 16mm cinematography, which maintains the eerie visual qualities of gothic horror long after the story itself deviates from those spookier leanings to fully embrace those of a more straightforward (if no less arresting) coming-of-age heartbreaker.

Le Bon’s film is adapted from the 2017 graphic novel Une sœur by Bastien Vivès, who co-wrote the screenplay with the director and François Choquet. The author has said that work was inspired by his own teenage awkwardness, how he wished he had an elder sister figure to look up to while growing up––a connection linking the two central characters which is far knottier in this iteration. It’s to the credit of Le Bon and her screenwriters that, despite transforming the female lead into an object of male affection typical for this genre, she is never reductively viewed as a mere figure of teenage hormonal infatuation. In their earliest meetings Chloé views Bastien as a non-threatening younger sibling she can hang out with, the opposite of the boorish boys closer to her own age who view her only as a potential sexual conquest. Realizing this awkward teen is starting to fall for her, she starts playing games just to see how far he will go, her casual approach to joking about sex making her blind to just how formative any sex-adjacent experience would be for someone of that younger age. 

Which isn’t to say Falcon Lake dances around a problematic age-gap minefield, so attuned to characters in two very different awkward stages of adolescence that their drifting apart proves even more incisively written than their blossoming friendship. Welcomed into Chloé’s friendship circle, Bastien begins lying about the nature of their relationship in a way that drags up past heartbreak––a reminder that he isn’t quite as mature as he makes himself out. Within what is one of the more problematic narrative tropes of this teen-oriented genre (the teenage boy and the older girl), Le Bon and her screenwriters land on something painfully, embarrassingly believable to help drag a trope kicking and screaming back to Earth. There’s something quietly powerful about the understated way it subverts one of the coming-of-age movie’s most unfortunately idealized clichés. 

Above all else, Le Bon’s debut showcases a playful spirit behind the camera: one eager to blend opposing genres, to find something authentically heartfelt beneath the tropes and gothic artifice. It’s a small Lake that I hope makes a big splash.

Falcon Lake opens in theaters on June 2 and arrives digitally on June 13.

Grade: B+

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