Glowing reviews may be the worst thing that can befall a first feature as presentable yet underwhelming as "Peppermint Soda," the award-winning French movie now at the Jenifer.
This much-acclaimed episodic memoir of adolescent girlhood, bounded by the end of summer vacation in 1963 and the beginning of summer vacation in 1964, is sprinkled with authentically charming and amusing evocations. At the same time it's slight, hesitant and progressively monotonous -- the sort of "little film" about which it's easier to get patronizing than honestly enthusiastic.
Diane Kurys, the 29-year-old writer-director, reveals an agreeably dry sense of humor and a neat, graceful touch, which serves well enough when the scenes are calculated to make droll, ironic little points and no one's feelings threaten to surge out of control. One doubts if she could bring much expressive force to bear on material that demanded strong emotional and dramatic illustration.
Kurys starts off as an adept technician. In addition to being crisp and orderly, the opening half-hour or so of "Peppermint Soda" is remarkably appealing.
Two daughters of divorced parents -- 13-year-old Anne (Eleonore Klarwein) and 15-year-old Frederique (Odile Michel) -- return from a holiday in Normandy with their father (a character actor called Puterflam, who suggests a plaintive cross of Casper Milquetoast with Adlai Stevenson) for residence in Paris with their mother (Anouk Ferjac) and the school year of 1963-64. The first day of the new term inspires Kurys' best sustained sequence. Old pals and classmates are reunited in the playground, producing a cheerful, bustling atmosphere.
An exceptionally witty composition captures several teachers calling roll at the head of lines of girls, the names echoing and overlapping in the balmy air. Kurys appears to have the audience eating out of her hand following an irresistible scene in which one of Ann's classmates regales her friends with graphically proposterous misinformation about sex.
Beyond that point, there are telling details and revealing moments, but the ongoing chronicle of the sisters levels off and flattens out. None of the early-'60s references is quite as nostalgically evocative as a scene in which Anne's sex-wise chum (Anne Guillard) returns for a belated encore, recalling how much bouyance and promise the movie had an hour earlier.
Unlike George Lucas in "American Graffiti" or Francois Truffaut in "Small Change," Kurys allows slack to accumulate in her episodic continuity. In some cases, elements are immediately shortchanged -- Frederique's breakup with her boyfriend after a camping trip is the most glaring example -- or permitted to dangle. When the school's dramatic coach admonishes Frederique and another student actress to make their scene "build more," one wishes that Kurys had been influenced by similar constructive criticism during the construction of her first movie.
Still, if you can enter the theater with modest expectations, there are many interludes that ring true and may linger in the memory: a startling exchange between Anne and her mother when the girl announces that she's finally got her period; the portrayal of Frederique's loss of a best friend who becomes fed up with her growing political fanaticism; schoolroom recollections both comic and infuriating.
Kury's fleeting, anticlimactic scenario seems to prevent either sister from emerging vividly from the background. Klarwein, portraying the autobiographical figure, is especially hampered by episodes which type her as a sulky, furtive kid. Anne comes up a little short on lively, playful moods. As a result, Klarwein ends up looking like a gloomy version of Mackenzie Phillips in "American Graffiti."
Kurys doesn't have the voluptuous, lyric flair for movie imagery and atmosphere that informed Nina Companeez's "Faustine and the Beautiful Summer," a bucolic celebration of adolescent ripening. The sun-drenched verdant settings of "Faustine" gave Companeez perhaps unfair visual advantage over the Parisian apartment and girls' high school in which the principal characters of "Peppermint Soda" are obliged to mature.
Nevertheless, it seems that Kurys brings far less ardor to filmmaking than Companeez (or, for that matter, Line Wertmuller, who has a sensuous aptitude for the medium that sometimes transcends her excruciating intellect). Temperamentally, Kurys appears to have more in common with the young American filmmaker Claudia Weill, whose "Girl Friends" was being widely overrated at about this time last year.
Although a respectable and occasionally beguilling first feature, "Peppermint Soda" lacks a certain fizz and staying power. It'll do as long as your moviegoing appetite craves only the lightest of light naturalistic refreshment.