“It’s hard to figure out exactly who you are and then it’s even harder to actually become that person”
It would have been difficult for filmmaker Geneviève Dulude-De Celles to find a better metaphor in action than the one at the center of her documentary Bienvenue à F.L. [Welcome to F.L.]. Beyond the wonderfully spare and candid interviews with students lies a photography project known as “Inside Out” where classmates pair up to take each other’s portrait for an art installation on their school’s exterior façade. Here’s an example of communication outside your social sphere (the pairings were picked at random), the notion that a school is nothing without those inhabiting it, and the reality that each year delivers a clean slate to start the cycle again. As one class graduates, another arrives with the same struggles, joy, frustration, and yearning to be as free as the last.
The result is a fly-on-the-wall glimpse beneath the curtain of adolescence as we remember it mixed with the new truths we couldn’t imagine alongside old truths we may have been spared. There are girls who feel invisible opposite those willing to do whatever is necessary to be seen. There are boys who embrace the cliques formed by sports and extracurricular activities opposite those who fought through anguish and pain to simply find a way to exist. There’s affluent kids looking down on those with more need. There are the intuitive kids who see past the surface of “honors” type classes, the specifications labeling them all “higher learners” and therefore morally strong and empathetic proving a lie. Kids are kids. Meanness, fear, jealousy, and hopelessness affect everyone.
But Dulude-De Celles doesn’t seek to make this her thesis as much as expose its existence. Her film isn’t focused on the concept of bullying or how victims and perpetrators evolve from those patterns (or don’t). This reality is but one of many to sit alongside the electric excitement of prom, the routine masks worn to be immortalized in photo before evaporating the instant the flash dims, and the desire to find yourself before ever being able to actually be yourself. We see and hear about the complex compartmentalization childhood manifests—the fracturing of identity into disparate copies that allow you to not only excel within each sphere of being individually, but also survive the others without ridicule of one. We’re con artists playing angles to get through the day.
Welcome to F.L. is uncensored (swearing) and captured with a vérité style of muted colors almost completely devoid of the director’s interference save an oft question cajoling elaboration on specific revelations. We hear the rumble of percussion, (a staple of the school as students are reminded to bring something to pound on during an announcement); the uniform ticking of a clock to mark the boredom-inducing monotony of all too similar rooms and teaching styles as well as a timer counting towards escape; and the difference in tone and demeanor when someone speaks to the camera as opposed to conversations held within the camera’s range. Introspection and mature aspirations—mixed with lofty career ambitions—dissolve to show the instinctual, filter-less words of a kid living in the moment.
The scene of prom proves the financial situation of this school is way too elaborate to come close to even my own middle class suburban experience, but the feelings remain universal nonetheless. Just because you have money doesn’t mean you’re happy. Just because you had a healthy and positive upbringing doesn’t mean situations can’t change to make your teenage years anything but. These are kids attempting to fit in at the same time as they try to standout—a conundrum that can make or break you. Some embrace their role as pariah while others retreat further away into isolation. Some reject it with such vehemence that they decide to conform while others use it as a platform to finally discover what truly forms their character beneath the superfluity.
Everyone interviewed is personable and authentic. Adults are barely seen besides as abstract, cropped figures if not earning a hug from their child. This is the students’ world; we’re visitors seeking to understand the trials and tribulations that have evolved and/or stayed the same. The film immortalizes a blip in their lifetimes—one that many still have yet to realize won’t be the “greatest years of their lives.” Yes this time period is formidable and serves as a means to find one’s code of conduct, personality, and true self, but it’s also in constant flux and as ready to conclude as it is to begin. And just like the bare walls underneath those portraits and empty classrooms awaiting summer’s end, a fresh start with infinite potential remains ever-present.