Director: Chandler Levack
Writer: Chandler Levack
Stars: Isiah Lehtinen, Romina D’Ugo,
Having debuted at TIFF last September and being screened at the 40th annual Miami Film Festival, this excellent debut by Canadian writer/director Chandler Levack connected to this critic from just the main character. Even though it is a period piece going back to Levack’s time as a film buff, she chose to switch the protagonist to a male because of her desire to prove that female directors can also make male-led stories. Even now as it was back then the belief that women directors can only do female-led stories, connecting the twenty years in difference shows that the perception is still the same.
Seventeen-year-old Lawrence (Isiah Lehtinen), is an overweight, socially inept cinephile and aspiring filmmaker. Right there, the description fits me both, even though, whereas I come from South Florida, our main character is an Ontario, Canada-based high school senior who aims to go into New York University’s film school. His single mother suggests that he can study films here like Canadian directing legend David Cronenberg (who didn’t go to film school presumably because the University of Toronto didn’t have one; his degree was in Literature), but the hardcore Lawrence wants to be the next Todd Solondz – a first for someone to say that – or Stanley Kubrick. He is of the mindset that he’s special and that he is the next big thing to shake up cinema.
It is 2003 and he and his friend Matt make their own movies on video (do teenagers know what VHS was?) but their tastes are very different. Reluctantly, Lawrence takes a job at a movie store to save money for tuition and begins an odd friendship with the manager, Alana (Romina D’Ugo). Alana is both somewhat annoyed by Lawrence’s arrogance in movies, such as telling customers what not to rent rather than just letting them rent anything, yet has pity for him when she realizes that his social skills aren’t the best and that he hurts internally from his problems communicating with others outside of the film-loving world. This is more apparent when she learns of Lawrence’s own issues at home with his mother (Krista Bridges) that explain his insecurities.
Levack uses her own upbringing – another movie-infested childhood being portrayed like in Belfast and The Fabelmans – as the basis, but, as noted earlier, makes the lead character a male adding a more complex layer to him. Lehtinen is smug as the ambitious yet delusional Lawrence whose holier-art-thou mindset allows the character to be emotionally vulnerable. It brings back the nostalgia of Blockbuster in the U.S. with rows of VHS and DVDs, the return drop box, and those dreaded late fees. But also Levack brings us moments of heartbreak and reality setting in for awkward teenagers whose one-dimensional view gets forcefully expanded. There’s a lot of heart in her script which makes the film simple and stays connected to changing events that humble the learning Lawrence as he goes into adulthood.
It even takes a turn into some serious matters which may not have been spoken of then compared to now. When Lawrence has an anxiety attack in the back room of the store, or when Alana comes over for dinner when an argument about Lawrence’s deceased father espouses the source of his hurt. The more dramatic point comes when Lawrence and Alana have a heart-to-heart about the reality of Hollywood when Alana reveals she went there as an aspiring actress but left following a traumatic event. He is seventeen and learns something that he may not totally understand, but it reveals her own love-hate affair with not just movies, but with men. It isn’t a random thing being said, but Levack’s lengthy scene adds context to a person withholding her own hurt and projects it onto Lawrence.
As a whole, this is a small film with plenty of nostalgia – again, today’s teens probably don’t know what tape recorders were – as well as a retrospective on learning to grow up quickly. It doesn’t try to push itself further, avoiding any over-dramatizing from the performances within the story. Levack’s film thrives on being simple, which is what a film just needs to be (the budget was reportedly $125,000), even for a new director on the scene. Some may complain about it not trying to go further with the emotions, but this isn’t a Mike Leigh, slice-of-life story. It’s quite relatable for the Lawrences of the world and the last scene leaves with hope on the way for the film nerds who just can’t fit in with the others.
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