Berlinale ’20 – ‘Goddess of the Fireflies’ is a Tender Look at a Lost Adolescence

A group of people walking down a dirt road

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Anais Barbeau-Lavalette’s Goddess of the Fireflies opens with one of the worst birthdays on film. Catherine (Kelly Depeault) spends the morning of her sixteenth with her mother (Caroline Néron) and father (Normand D’Amour), and barely two minutes elapse before it is obvious why the parents are on opposite sides of the room. An extravagant gift from her father leads immediately to a physical altercation between the parents, and Catherine can only watch silently and resentfully as the fight ends with an SUV flipped in the driveway. Both parents are still alive, only a bit bruised, but the damage is obvious as the camera stays fixed to Catherine’s face in the aftermath of the accident. She has been here before, and her grim silence makes it clear that she has no power in her fraught family. She finds another way out, fighting her geographic isolation and toxic friendships to forge a place and identity in a burgeoning underground grunge scene. 

Adapted from the Quebecois novel of the same name, the film follows the expected beats of a rebellion-fuelled coming-of-age story, which is not necessarily a bad thing. This narrative is a timeless and satisfying one as Barbeau-Lavalette fills it with anger, joy, vulnerability, and truthfulness. Even if audiences know how the story plays out – the misfit child of a dysfunctional family grows into adulthood and autonomy with the signature second act highs and third act lows – the unmistakable female gaze and sense of place mark Goddess as a worthy entry to the canon. 

Depeault shines as Catherine. After the calamitous opening birthday, she never leaves Catherine’s self-determination in doubt. Her agency and youth are clearly marked, making her headfirst plunge into both a joyous new identity and self-destruction wholly involving. Throughout, Catherine’s romantic exploration and adoption of her friend’s grunge aesthetic is never sexualised. She remains a teenager having fun on her own terms, and the first time she has sex with her boyfriend Pascal is funny, awkward, and sweet from her perspective. 

The film’s sense of place is one of its strongest elements. Rural Quebec’s forests and fields feel anonymous and invite teenage reinvention, lending a sense of adventure to the teenagers’ meetings. On a darker note, an awareness of the intersecting prejudices in this community hangs over the film. For instance, Catherine’s father consistently insults her mother’s native heritage as a factor in what ,he deems, her irrationality. The misogynist and racist accusation may have been more overt in the 1990s, but speaks to prejudices Canada has not yet fully addressed. 

Goddess knows when to lean into the self-destructive and dangerous sides of Catherine’s teenage rebellion as well as when to pull back and relish the softer, gentler, sillier sides of growing up – both of which ring true. Her newfound friends are ebullient, welcoming, and far from glamorised, bringing Catherine along on their ill-planned escapades and sharing albums with open arms. But scenes later they dump their overdosing comrade on the hospital steps before tearing away in an overcrowded pickup truck. In the former scenes, Jonathan Decoste’s cinematography and Sylvain Bellemare’s sound design enhance the wonder and freedom of an anarchic teenage community. As the drugs become more and more crucial to function, however, the cinematic walls close in, visually and audibly representing the world Catherine builds only to bring crashing back onto herself.  

Goddess of the Fireflies celebrates the joys of first freedoms and stretching boundaries while never shying away from the darkness and mistakes of teenage self-discovery. In the process, the film gives us a heroine who learns and grows on her own – sometimes eager, sometimes reluctant – terms. Even if the progression of events to their eventual conclusion is not ground-breaking, there is a certain comfort in watching Catherine’s journey, knowing it has unfolded thousands of times before. 

by Carmen Paddock

Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie

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