Peppermint Soda: Dame Oiseau, by David Bax

Two sisters, aged roughly 13 and 15, sit on a beach. The older one has a boyfriend with her but he’s not as important as he seems in the moment; the relationship won’t last. They gather on towels beneath a large umbrella but the joke here is that it’s a gloomy, overcast day and the beach appears to be more mud than sand. The only color comes from the umbrella and the girls’ bright-hued swimsuits. In Diane Kurys’ Peppermint Soda, named for a neon green beverage served at the cafe near the sisters’ school, color is artificial yet crucial to survival in a world that is, at best, indifferent to one’s own personal fulfillment. That’s something for which we can depend only on ourselves.

Covering roughly a year of the sisters’ lives, from summer 1963 to summer 1964, Peppermint Soda details the various awakenings of Frédérique (Odile Michel) and Anne Weber (Eléonore Klarwein), focused mostly on the younger Anne. With its year-in-the-life structure and its sharp but warm sense of humor, it’s a precursor to last year’s Lady Bird.

Kurys, who also cowrote the screenplay, divides the story into episodes which are clearly delineated by the fade-outs that end each one, like the curtain falling on another chapter of Anne’s childhood. Kurys also peppers the film with family snapshots of the girls and their parents posing with forced smiles in order to commemorate some noteworthy event, false memories that will outlast the true ones. And yet Kurys is no less particular in staging Frédérique and Anne’s actual everyday existence, returning again and again to the same setups in the same rooms. These spaces thus become familiar to us but they also become banal, a bland background for the turmoils that will shape these young women for the rest of their lives.

Many of Anne’s troubles come from school and the other girls there. It doesn’t matter that she is a relatively popular girl; eighth grade is a gauntlet of sadism and humiliation nonetheless. It certainly doesn’t help that each teacher and faculty member is effectless in their own way, from the teacher who can’t control her own classroom on one end of the spectrum to the headmistress who views every student as a potential criminal on the other. But then teachers are almost beside the point in Kurys’ vision of school. In Peppermint Soda, school is a place for these girls to learn the social skills they’ll need as they get older. Any other form of education is, at best, an afterthought.

Kurys’ pessimism about institutions extends to politics. Frédérique becomes an outspoken leftist and an activist as the school year progresses. But the movie doesn’t give the viewer confidence that this represents anything other than a new group for her to hang out with. When one of her new comrades tells her, “The fight against fascists is never done,” it feels more like trendy new slang than a rallying cry.

Frédérique’s testing of new waters, though, is not any less momentous for its base motivations. The strength of coming-of-age stories is that the characters’ personal transformations, minor though they may be in the scheme of things, are treated as revelatory explorations, like the discovery of a new world, which is how they feel to these young people at the time. And so Anne’s constant testing of boundaries–lying or pleading to achieve her desires–is not depicted as brattiness but as adventurous will. We root for her even as we understand from our own experiences that, as autonomy creeps into her life, so will danger. We can feel both joy and fear at once because coming-of-age stories exist in two worlds. While movies about childhood are often about memories, movies about adulthood are just as often about hopes, including the ones that never pan out. The coming-of-age genre can be so bittersweet because because it bridges both. Peppermint Soda is a stellar example of the format.

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