Three essential movies about coming of age in Canada
TIFF's Canada's Top Ten festival spotlights one vintage pic and two contemporary ones
"Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves?" Nietzsche surely wasn't thinking of teenagers when he asked that question, since the young and bored see life as a thousand times too long. School is tedious, parents and teachers enforce arbitrary rules, and summers seem endless.
The three coming-of-age feature films playing in TIFF's Canada's Top Ten Festival: Sleeping Giant, Closet Monster, and My American Cousin show teens who, along with the expected search for kicks, find that their desires place them on the wrong side of what their friends and neighbours deem to be normal.
That latter film, a 1985 Genie-award-winner which TIFF pulled out of the vault for the occasion, is Sandy Wilson's semi-autobiographical tribute to growing up in rural British Columbia, circa 1959. The sassy 12-year-old Sandy (Margaret Langrick) sprawls "Nothing ever happens!" in her journal, but her summer livens up when Butch (John Wildman), her 17-year-old American cousin, rolls into town in a shiny red Cadillac convertible.
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In navigating her burgeoning sexual feelings towards Butch — deemed a dreamboat or no-good rebel by the rest of the town's teen population, depending on their sexual orientation — Sandy becomes frustrated when he refuses to take her seriously because of her young age, and the film is both funny and moving when Sandy's earnest attempts to flirt are met with disgust from Butch.
While Sandy knows what she wants, the more reticent and sheltered Adam (Jackson Martin) in Andrew Cividino's Sleeping Giant tries to cope with his attraction to his new friend Riley (Reece Moffett), which results in him manipulating his friends away from Riley so the two can spend more time alone. Sleeping Giant follows Adam, Riley and his similarly shaggy-haired cousin Nate (Nick Serino) as they wrestle, burn things, play video games, and just generally kill time against the film's bucolic backdrop of sleepy rural Ontario.
As far as the coming-of-age theme goes, however, the three boys' paths diverge significantly. The middle-class Adam receives a lot of fatherly instruction, whereas the two cousins, who live with their laissez-faire grandmother, find their ideal role model in their skeezy marijuana dealer. Still, though Riley and Nate's attempts to flaunt their masculinity through various daredevil games puts them in harm's way, the better-off Adam isn't exempt from the pressure. His own attempt at a display of manliness — trying to repress his desire for Riley — comes with the real risk of lasting emotional trauma.
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Like Sleeping Giant's Adam, Oscar — the main character of Closet Monster, directed by Stephen Dunn — hides his homosexuality when he cute-meets a retail coworker, the worldly, confident pretty boy Wilder (Aliocha Schneider). Every time Oscar (Connor Jessup) fantasizes about Wilder, he imagines horrific bodily changes that are reminiscent of early David Cronenberg films like Videodrome, and he finds it impossible to express his feelings in a way that won't be met with rejection and ridicule from Wilder and his father. But he finds a creative identity despite his relative isolation in Newfoundland, doing fantastical makeup and photography work with best friend Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), and creating his own maternal support through a magical talking pet hamster (Isabella Rosselini).
Despite the different genders and sexual orientations of these protagonists, Sandy's confusion over her sexual identity is mirrored in Adam and Oscar's turmoil. While Sandy's struggles might now seem quaint in contrast to the homophobia faced by Adam and Oscar, My American Cousin adeptly depicts how the idea of a woman (or a 12-year-old girl, for that matter) making the first move was considered transgressive in the 1950s. For all three, the word "stifling" has two meanings: the tedium of their surroundings, and the pressures to conform to a perceived standard of normality.
TIFF's Canada's Top Ten Film Festival runs to Jan 17 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King W, Toronto, and tours to Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Ottawa, Calgary and Halifax. See the website for complete listings and details.