A moody, clenched drama that works its tension so deep you may find your palms marked with the indentations of your fingernails by the end, “Les Nôtres” is the deeply uneasy but compelling second film from director Jeanne Leblanc (“Isla Blanca”). Illuminated by a powerfully self-possessed performance by Émilie Bierre as the 13-year-old whose pregnancy will have dire consequences for all except the pedophile responsible, this is an enraging film astringent enough to peel the paint from the façade of virtue propped up by the small-town Quebecois community in which it takes place.
Pretty, popular Magalie (Bierre) and her little brother are being raised by her mother Isabelle (Marianne Farley) after her father died in an industrial tragedy for which the town of Sainte-Adeline is still in mourning. Isabelle is helped out by best friend Chantale (Judith Baribeau, co-writer of the screenplay with Leblanc), who happens to be married to the mayor and Isabelle’s employer, Jean-Marc (Paul Doucet). They live right across the street, and are foster parents to school soccer star Manu (Léon Diconca Pelletier), who is also Magalie’s best friend. Such is the way in a small town like this, where people water each other’s lawns, babysit each other’s kids and know each other’s business.
But after Magalie collapses during a dance team rehearsal, a more serious condition than her fractured arm comes to light: She is pregnant, and already in her second trimester. She withdraws from Isabelle. Her classmates taunt and ostracize her. Still, she refuses to disclose the father’s identity, even to her soft-spoken social worker (Guillaume Cyr). Her friends think it is the mysterious “Taz,” whom Magalie claims is a boyfriend who goes to college in “Montreal” (answering the question of where Canadians claim their fictional SOs are from). But Isabelle immediately assumes Manu, whom she refers to hissingly as “that little Mexican,” is the culprit.
Early on, thankfully — because the true father is heavily clued from the start — it’s clear the story is not going to play out as some sort of whodunit. Instead the film is structured in a much more discomfiting and provocative way, revealing the man’s identity unequivocally to us while the townspeople remain in the dark. It puts us in the privileged but agonizing position of being this complicated, often heartbreakingly wrongheaded young girl’s confidant, an impression enhanced by Tobie Marier Robitaille’s camerawork which always finds Magalie in a crowd, centers her in a group, and gently but perceptibly isolates her from everyone else through shifts in focus and lighting. The film is a stashed hope chest or a locked diary that keeps Magalie’s secrets close but forces us to share in them.
“Les Nôtres” is outwardly similar to 2018’s “Little Tickles,” “The Tale” and last year’s “Slalom” which deal in the horror of pedophile grooming, and especially in the way that children can be unwittingly coerced into complicity with their victimizers. And elements like the dusky photography and Marie-Hélène L. Delorme’s score, which comes draped in dread, do almost feel like they could belong to a horror movie, while this exact situation feels like the setup for a dozen HBO small-town murder-mysteries. But Leblanc and Baribeau’s screenplay is a subtler beast, to the point of frustrating our expectations in these post-MeToo times for comeuppance or catharsis. Instead, with a painterly stillness, the film unfolds as a progressive rotting, which moves outward from the central violation to reveal the misogyny, racism, xenophobia and complacent self-interest that undergirds this seemingly pleasant, neighborly place.
The assistant who turns a blind eye to damning evidence when she is not-so-tacitly bribed to do so; the trusted adult who would rather victim-blame the child into running away than confront her own creeping suspicions; and of course Magalie herself, getting the Gen-Z Hester Prynne treatment in the form of whispered taunts in school hallways and vicious social media memes. If a village can raise a child, in order to protect the lie of itself, it can also destroy one. And though the cleverly ambivalent final scene hints at the possibility of justice down the line, and certainly suggests misery in store for the repellent perpetrator, “Les Nôtres” remains — right up to its tight, repressed ending — a deeply disquieting, superbly performed evocation of a very banal sort of evil.