The French-Canadian Teen Dreamers of 'Tu Dors Nicole'

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Why you should care

Spend a summer in Quebec for the price of a movie ticket.

You’re sleeping, Nicole. American distributors of foreign-language films tend to translate titles, but Kino Lorber left Tu dors Nicole in the original French. That can come off as gimmicky or pretentious, but in this case it feels appropriate. In its brevity and simple cadence, it’s an evocative title for an evocative film. Particularly since the Nicole of the title (a quietly great Julianne Côté) is first introduced as restless. But she spends much of her waking in a dreamlike haze. As she moves into adulthood, this doesn’t do her many favors.

Yes, Nicole is a directionless 20-something, and yes, the film bursts with black-and-white whimsy. But Tu dors Nicole transcends the conventions of its tired genre. Co-writer/director Stéphane Lafleur avoids the trap of substanceless quirk-fest; he has an intuitive sense for which qualities to underscore and which to downplay: Nicole always feels real even as she flirts with manic-pixie-dream-girl status.

Rather than bromances and in-jokey banter, it’s moments of absurdity and even surreality that lend the film its atmosphere.

Nicole’s parents are on holiday for the summer, so she and her older frère are watching the house. In practice, this amounts to him holding band practice in the living room while she and inseparable bestie Véronique hang around. (Their dynamic makes Tu dors Nicole seem a cinematic cousin of 2001’s Ghost World, whose central relationship was likewise between two young adults struggling to make sense of their new adult surroundings.) The introduction of a new drummer into the instrumental-rock group also introduces tension to that dynamic — Nicole fancies him, but his status within the band (to say nothing of his friendship with her brother) makes him reluctant to act on any feelings he may be harboring.

Lafleur is careful not to overtly diagnose Nicole with this or that disorder or chalk up her deepening irresponsibility — getting let go from her Goodwill-style job after being caught stealing, maxing out a credit card sent to her in the mail — to mere flights of fancy, though it’s clear that both play a part. This creates a tension, never fully resolved, that makes Tu dors Nicole the most artful hangout movie in some time. Young people lounging around a swimming pool are everywhere in this film. But rather than bromances and in-jokey banter, it’s moments of absurdity and even surreality that lend the film its atmosphere.

French-Canadian cinema is ascendant as of late, with festival-circuit hits like Gabrielle, Monsieur Lazhar and supposed wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s oeuvre gaining the sort of attention that led to Denis Villeneuve’s emergence in Hollywood with 2013’s Prisoners. Tu dors Nicole is a fine addition to that company, its effort-to-impact ratio perhaps the most impressive of the bunch. The effect of watching Nicole navigate her way through admittedly familiar problems is commensurate with the realization that Lafleur is charting that journey in as unassuming a manner as possible. Rather than deaden the impact, this subtle approach increases it: Here is a film that breathes in and out as it leads to an eruption that doubles as both a break from reality and a poignant declaration of independence.

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