Scarborough is a beautiful movie, if you're willing to give it a chance
Film adapted from Catherine Hernandez novel is led by spellbinding performances from its child stars
When director Chris Columbus talked about the successes of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint eight years after the first Harry Potter movie, he told the L.A. Times he was just impressed they could "get through an entire scene in one shot."
"I know that sounds funny," he said, "but in the old days … and in that first picture in particular, it's filled with cuts because they couldn't really get beyond the first line without either looking into the camera, laughing or looking at the lights."
Going back about 10 years earlier, novelist Ian McEwan wrote The Good Son — his first-ever Hollywood movie — before hitting a brick wall. Kit Culkin, failed actor and father/manager to Macaulay Culkin, bullied the original child actors out of the project, got Macaulay and his little sister Quinn a role, and eventually caused McEwan to be "sacked from [his] own script."
Then there's Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Paris Themmen, who played the TV obsessed hellion Mike Teevee (or Teavee, for book-purists) said when Gene Wilder was asked about what it was like to work with him, he didn't hold back.
"He says: 'Four of them are fantastic, one of them I'm going to shoot in the head tomorrow.'"
So it's safe to say if there's one advantage novels have over movies, it's in the casting. The difficulties of both corralling young children and getting a powerful — let alone bearable — performance from them is much easier in a reader's imagination than through the cold hard lens of a camera.
That makes it somewhat surprising that when Catherine Hernandez helped to rewrite her 2017 book Scarborough into a film, she opted to pare down the sweeping, ensemble-style story and focus it even more closely on the lives and deeply nuanced problems of three very young kids — Bing, Sylvie and Laura.
Each is no more than about eight years old, and — at first — are connected by nothing more than living in Scarborough, and eventual participation in a drop-in reading program run by the painfully self-sacrificing Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani).
There's Laura (Anna Claire Beitel) who gives a quietly heartbreaking performance as a little girl tossed between abusive and neglectful parents — at times abandoned in a subway station, or left alone without food on Christmas.
Then there's Sylvie (Mekiya Fox) an outgoing and kind girl who's nonetheless annoyed by the attention her mother, Marie (Cherish Violet Blood) is forced to divide between her and little brother Johnny (Felix Jedi Ingram Isaac), who's exhibiting the early signs of autism spectrum disorder.
Finally, there's Bing (Liam Diaz). Equally quiet and fiercely smart, Bing spends his time divided between trying to be a good friend to Sylvie and a good son to Edna (Ellie Posadas).
And despite the stories commonly told about working with children and animals in film, the Scarborough team was able to strike gold once, twice… maybe more than three times, really.
Documentary-style film required over 40 speaking roles
In bringing Scarborough to life, the film features over 40 speaking roles — most from first-time, largely untrained actors, and the result is a yearlong production that is as much a love letter to a place as to its people. Beitel, Fox and Diaz give performances otherworldly in their honesty (the least of which is a singing performance by Diaz, one of no less than three scenes that brought me to tears) as they interact with a community rarely represented or seen on screen.
But that honesty is both Scarborough's strongest and its weakest points. Movies about childhood hinge on directing and characterization maybe more than any other, which directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson were able to achieve by filming in a loose, documentary style. Allowing the young actors to experiment — sometimes through games designed by an on set behavioural therapist — drew organic and raw performances from the cast, and 11 nominations at the Canadian Screen Awards.
That includes nods for best picture, achievement in direction, acting nominations for Diaz, Kanani and Blood and — perhaps most obviously and deservedly — achievement in casting.
But at the same time, that loose, character-focused style demands a lot from its audience. At roughly 135 minutes, it stretches the attention-span limits of all but the most dedicated binge watchers. And those are no easy 135 minutes — though Scarborough, at its heart, is about overcoming systems working at odds with marginalized people, it first dives head first into the never-ending obstacles those systems put up.
Marie is pushed out of a doctor's office while using the few free minutes she has as a single parent to get Johnny diagnosed. Ms. Hina is discouraged from offering food or even sympathy to children and their parents who are severely lacking in both. And Laura spends hours at home in an apartment, cutting the canary-yellow eviction notices slid under their apartment door into birds, after first one parent then another ignores her.
Not everyone looks to sad media as an escape from a sad reality. There, Scarborough might lose some of its audience, which is an utter shame. Because in the end, as director Nakhai explained, Scarborough is about how to overcome, and how to survive a world that seems intent on the opposite.
"A lot of people have spent the past two years … deprived of community. And so it's a great reminder of the ways in which we are linked to one another," Nakhai said in an interview with CBC News.
"We need to make sure we support them because those are the types of people that hold communities together."
And beyond the otherworldy performances by child stars acting well beyond their years, cinematography that walks the line between film and poetry, and a story that's more about its characters than plot, that's what it is. Scarborough is about a community — a community that you'd do anything to save.
Scarborough opened in select theatres in Toronto, Hamilton, Scarborough and Saskatoon on Feb. 25. It will premiere in Vancouver and Sudbury March 11, with more cities to follow.
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