I'm not sure if The Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux sauvages) is the best "coming of age" film ever made, but it's difficult to think of another that feels more real and honest.
Set in Provence, France in 1962 during the Algerian crisis, The Wild Reeds focuses on four young adults, who are attempting to sort out their lives--personally, politically, and socially. This is Breaking Away without collegiate antagonists or bicycle races and is American Grafitti without wheels, but is accomplished at a far more intimate level.
We are first introduced to introverted François (Gaël Morel) and his platonic girlfriend Maïté (Élodie Bouchez), who are attending the wedding of Serge's (Stéphane Rideau) brother. François and Serge both attend boarding school, where we meet 21-year old Henri (Frédéric Gorny). The other three characters are all 18.
While not that much actually happens during the film, the threat of war continually looms. Serge's brother is in the military and only got married to get a three-day leave in hopes of finding a way of deserting, while Henri continually listens to radio broadcasts about the Algerian conflict, as he knows that he could soon be drafted. Despite the non existence of actual battle in the film, warfare is the thread that holds the story together and lends some meaning to the title.
The four young people are like the reeds cited in the fable that are flexible enough to bend and survive through the storm, while the older inflexible oak gets toppled. In this case, Serge's brother is killed offscreen and Maïté's mother suffers a nervous breakdown over the guilt she feels for not helping the young man to desert.
The focal point of the story rests on Maïté and her relationship with each of the others. She is especially close to François, who could have become her lover were it not for his growing realization that he is gay. This is not a comfortable awareness for François, as we see him confide his one time exploratory sexual encounter with Serge to Maïté. From her reaction, we realize that she is indeed the special friend that everyone would love to find, as she exudes sensitivity and understanding.
She is the most understanding character in the film to help François through his sexual confusion. Certainly more so than the elderly gay shoestore owner who cannot handle François' openness about his sexuality when he asks the older man for advice. And we feel for François' torment when he curses his bathroom mirror image with repeated self-admissions that he is indeed a homosexual.
Fortunately, Henri and Serge are as supportive as they can honestly be though both are far more interested in Maïté than François is. She has her own sexual conflicts as well, but continues to demonstrate sensitivity and strength when she meets Serge and Henri through François. The film deals with her issues as well, so this is not strictly a gay coming of age story as some assert. By the end of the film, we understand each of these characters a great deal. Like many foreign films, the conclusion of The Wild Reeds is left open-ended, which may disturb American audiences used to formula happy resolutions that are neatly tied up at the end.
The film doesn't even feel like a fictional piece at all--more like voyeuristically peeking inside an intimate inner circle. Much of the credit for this must go to the young actors, especially Morel and Bouchez who seem to be actually experiencing and openly expressing their angst and joys on film more than they are acting. Though firmly set in the 1960's with the Algerian war and with Chubby Checker music in the background, the film continues to hold up, as it deals with timeless issues about self worth and relationship questions that everyone goes through.
I had a difficult time understanding the Algerian situation and how Communist philosophy plays a part in this, but this is more due to my ignorance of the subject than it is to a weakness in the film. This parallels the Vietnam War experience for U.S. audiences, but that is of relatively minor importance. The main reason that The Wild Reeds works is due far more to its honest portrayal of these young people, composed so intimately that they feel like friends.