" Be careful of the deadfall "
— Anthony Hopkins, The Edge

MRQE Top Critic

Les Choristes

The French confection Les Choristes is now available on a skimpy, movie-only DVD —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Hide Your Smiling Faces has a slow pace, and a slightly mystical air. If I were to dismiss it, I might say “here’s another film equating puberty and ennui with magic.” True, youth and ennui play a large part in shaping the film’s tone, but the film is deeper and more thoughtful than just that.

Eric and Tommy are brothers. Eric (Nathan Varnson) is probably 15; Tommy (Ryan Jones) is probably 12. Eric has a friend named Tristan (Thomas Cruz). Their friend Ian (Ivan Tomic) was found dead at the bottom of a big drop.

Brothers head for the viaduct to figure out how to grow up
Brothers head for the viaduct to figure out how to grow up

After Ian’s death, tension is high, especially among the rarely seen adults. Ian’s dad (Colm O’Leary) speaks with an Irish accent, suggesting he’s not from around here. The town isn’t exactly a community. There is a public funeral for Ian, but his father doesn’t come. The first time we saw Ian’s dad, he was yelling at the boys for playing with his pistol. The second time we see him, he’s threatening to kill Eric and Tommy’s dog if it wanders onto his property again. His empty-looking, forbidding house is almost more of a character than he is.

The warm New England setting is ideal for the story. Pre-cell-phone-era, it’s rural, but not so isolated that there aren’t neighbors. There is a monumental disused railway viaduct that becomes a focal point for the teens who want to get away from their parents for a while. The landscape is beautiful, with wooded hills rolling away in the distance, with the possibility for vistas above or claustrophobic forests within. It’s a good place to learn about life and death.

There is something mystical about puberty. It’s a form of metamorphosis, and those who are in its midst are old enough to start to see the world as adults, but they don’t have the experience to understand and cope what they’re seeing. The world really is a weird place, a little mysterious if not magical. What is death? Is it normal to feel this way?

Other scenes of discovery suggest the teenaged proto-adults trying to figure out how things work. To let off steam, the friends gather on a grassy hillside to wrestle. Whether they know it or not, they’re testing their bodies and establishing a pecking order that might last for years. Two younger friends wonder what kissing girls will be like. They’re too grossed out to try it on each other, but maybe through a sheet of plastic....

A childish fascination with death permeates the film. The opening shot shows a snake eating a salamander, and soon after we see the boys finding a dead bird and playing with it like a toy. They later discover a creepy place with many dead dogs and cats. Tristan once asks Eric if he ever thinks about killing himself. Eric doesn’t get it. “You want to die because you’re sad? That’s dumb.”

Late in the film, one of the boys offers a prayer to a dead raccoon. It’s delivered with all the weight and sobriety a young teenager can muster: “Dear raccoon: I’m sorry you died and I’m sorry my brother burned you after you’re dead. I hope you come back as a better animal, unless you liked being a raccoon, in which case I hope you come back as that. Amen.”

Amen.