Avoir 16 ans
(To Be Sixteen)
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 125 min
Cinak Compagnie Cinématographique Ltée.
Some directors can be said to make film novels, or film essays. Jean Pierre Lefebvre makes film contemplations, or film poems. Avoir 16 ans, a study of youthful dissent told from the viewpoint of sixteen-year-old high school student Louis (Yves Benoît), contemplates what "human rights" one truly has – or does not have – at that age.
Louis rebels not against his parents but an oppressive "left" and "right" ideology enforced by a reactionary administrator and alienating, left-liberal teachers. After Louis performs a play he has written that involves him smoking a joint on stage, he is called into the principal’s (Michel Dumont) office and punished. Escalating his revolt from words into actions, he breaks into the school and vandalizes it. Retribution is swift: the police brutalize Louis and his father (Aubert Pallascio) conspires with the authorities to send him to a mental institution under the care of a psychiatrist (Gilles Renaud). Though his mother (Marthe Choquette) visits him, Louis becomes increasingly isolated. Released from the clinic at seventeen, he meets his close friends Louise (Louise Choquette) and Bob (Alain Moffat), but all Louis can muster at this point is passive resistance.
A precisely structured, austere, yet moving film, Avoir 16 ans embraces a piercing analysis of institutional repression and authoritarianism within the social order. Film critic Jay Scott aptly described it as "a tone poem to the prison we call adolescence." Lefebvre’s use of slow zooms expresses the sense of imprisonment the students feel, while the figures of authority in the film are shown to be victims of their own rhetoric.
Originally intending the film to be a documentary about school vandalism, Lefebvre decided to shift to the "formal authority of fiction" when none of the schools he approached would grant him access to their facilities. As Peter Harcourt explains, "though based on an actual event, Avoir 16 ans is less about school vandalism than it is about the institutional repressions that stifle our lives." He further notes how Lefebvre’s attempts to, in his own words, oppose "‘the coldness of the structure to the tenderness of the observation,’" creates "those twin values that tug at us in all the films of Jean Pierre Lefebvre – the values that deny and the values that affirm... Like all great art, Avoir 16 ans, while speaking directly from the specificities of its own time and culture, speaks to the world."