French film ‘Teenagers’ misses badly

Teenagers, an independent French film directed by Paul Verhoeven, has earned impressive awards from film festivals all over the world while also drawing harsh criticism from others. It would be easy to envision where the criticisms come from but extremely unclear how a film of this quality earned any award anywhere.

Paul Verhoeven is an established Hollywood heavyweight director and producer. With hits like Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, Total Recall and Robocop, the Verhoeven name has a dedicated following of moviegoers ready to suspend their disbelief and settle in for an action packed adventure. It is safe to say that Verhoeven is an expert at his craft.

But, the mastermind behind Total Recall has a cousin who shares the same name. He too is a filmmaker, but his resume is not as impressive. Teenagers is his first film and after 5 minutes at the Arena Cinema it was clear that the two Pauls have a very different skill set.

The film opens up in 1983 with a 12 year old boy named Lucas keeping company to Erwan, 15. Erwan’s parents set out on a journey that left Erwan to fend for himself, leaving him bitter and resentful. He deflects his bitterness onto a vulnerable Lucas who is prepared to accept harsh treatment in hopes that it would make Erwan happy again. Erwan takes advantage of his power and almost kills his humble follower. Seeing what he has done, Erwan develops an emotional attachment to Lucas, but runs away in fear that Lucas might grow up to be like him.

The film fast-forwards to Lucas as a courageous young adult. A 14 year old boy named Said is sent by a terrorist organization to kill Lucas for writing a song opposing the terrorists actions. When Said meets Lucas, he is captivated by his preachings of love and acceptance. Desperately in need of a nurturing relationship, Said creates a bond with his target. As a result, Said becomes the next target of the terrorists.

Lucas’ influence carries on to a new protagonist, Alexis, 15. Alexis sees Lucas’ inspiration as almost Christ-like and begins to relay his words onto others. He is able to offer Lucas’ words to another teen, Brieuc, who is on the verge of committing suicide. Brieuc refrains from doing so and Lucas’ influence proves to be a lasting, positive mark on the lives of everyone in the movie.

Based solely on the plot, the film has potential to be worthwhile. With a strong lead, quality directing and a decent production crew, Teenagers could be an independent film ripe for distribution. Unfortunately, this movie missed on every essential aspect required of being called watchable.

The film appears to have had nearly no budget. Each setting seems to have been either the home of someone involved with the movie or in a random location in the woods. The actors apparently have no experience and are forced to shove their awkward dramatics in each other’s faces each minute of the 2 and a half hour film. The acting implies that the shooting of this film was as painful to experience as it was to watch. A minimal budget and poor acting could be expected of an independent film, but even the film transitions were cheesy and distracting from an already weak plot.

A common aspect among successful low budget indie films is that they tend not to overreach. This film needed to stick to a central subject and put all its effort into achieving its main goal. Verhoeven thought he could get away with more than his budget would allow.  In believing so, he created a strange film that left me embarrassed and uncomfortable.

Teenagers is all over the place. The film touches on bullying, dependence, terrorists, sexuality, homophobia and suicide, amongst other dramatic themes. None of these issues are handled properly. The film hits a true low point when the film’s protagonist, Lucas, creates a loving bond with his intended killer. Although Lucas is not murdered, the believability of the film certainly is.

Attempting to address a theme as delicate as teenage sexuality is gutsy. Very few films have tackled the subject in a tasteful manner. Although Verhoeven makes a valiant effort, Teenagers is way off the mark with its attempt at turning an awkward subject into art. At this point in the movie, viewers are likely to want to remove themselves from the theatre and forget about what was just witnessed.

Teenagers has earned its share of accolades at various film festivals around the world, likely due to the attention to anti-suicide in teens. If this was the intended objective, then I would say good job to the cast and crew. This is a film for kids and should be advertised as such.