Picture Day – Kate Melville

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This film first caught my attention last year at TIFF, but though it was on my “To See” list at the time, it ultimately didn’t work out schedule-wise, and I ended up having to leave it behind.

Until now.

The moment I heard that First Weekend Club would be screening Picture Day at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for at least a week, I made plans to get myself there.  And so, though sick and exhausted and generally burnt out, I settled down somewhat gleefully into a comfy seat at the Lightbox last night to watch the premiere.  SO very glad I did!  Director Kate Melville was on hand, as well as pretty much all of the cast, which made for a fun Q&A after the screening, and a generally wonderful atmosphere in which to view the film overall.

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Picture Day follows Claire (the ever incredible Tatiana Maslany), a sort of girl-in-between who, having to repeat her senior year of high school, struggles to find and maintain her place in the world at large.  On one end of the spectrum, Claire is on the cusp of adulthood, left pretty much to her own devices while her mom, Annie (Fiona Highet), drifts through stages of depression in a near-constant state of neglect where her daughter is concerned.  Thus, Claire spends much of her time wandering the streets of Toronto wearing her ever-present headphones, watching live bands in clubs she’s not old enough to get into, and seeking attention and acceptance from anyone and everyone.  The current object of her mild obsession is James (Steven McCarthy), the sexy lead singer of the ElastoCitizens, whose energetic on-stage presence is nearly as magnetic as his enigmatic off-stage charm.  It takes exactly no time for Claire to seduce the much older man, and after a night together, one would hope that James would lete sleeping dogs lie once he realized how young Claire was – but that would be a wasted hope.  James shows up at Claire’s school as it’s letting out for the day, and off they go again, even as the audience watching knows that no good can come of this.

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In the meantime, Grade 9 new kid, Henry (Spencer Van Wyck) has taken an immediate interest in Claire, and when she catches him smoking weed instead of joining the rest of his gym class doing burpees in the field by the school, the pair share a short conversation over the joint, and we learn that Claire used to be Henry’s babysitter.  Deemed an exceptional student at a young age, Henry has trouble fitting in at his new public school, and Claire sees the chance to occupy her time at school with a new project – she decides to give Henry a “cool kid make-over”.  She gives him a fake brooding history, new clothes, and a lovely shade of blue for his curly mop of hair.  Add in a superficial girlfriend who is eager to believe the lies, a nemesis for Claire, henry’s well-meaning but slightly crazy parents, and one hilarious Bingo caller – along with a kickass soundtrack – and you’ve got yourself the makings of a fine film.

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What makes Picture Day such an amazing film, however, is not so much any one of those elements, but a perfect blending of all.  As a character, Claire is a flawed anti-hero of sorts – her mistakes are plain and clear as she makes them, sometimes even to her.  But it is in her genuine desire to be loved that I found her to be the most fascinating.  Tatiana Maslany is mesmerizing to watch on her worst day, and she is in wonderfully fabulous form here.  Her Claire can break your heart with a smile, carefully tucking away her need for acceptance behind everything but her quietly pleading eyes.  She imbues Claire with so much depth – so many layers – you alternately want to hold her, slap her, shake her, drink with her, make her laugh, and sleep with her.  Sometimes all at once.  She is every teenaged girl ever to walk the earth, and yet unlike anyone you’ve ever seen before.  She is simply complex.

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You probably can’t tell, but I am really trying not to gush too much about Maslany’s talent and general awesomeness in everything she does.  The girl is incredibly talented, and as far as I’m concerned, she should be in everything I watch.  But that’s not to say that Picture Day is imbalanced and held together on her screen presence alone.  Far from it, in fact!  The entire cast was SO well-suited for their roles, and for their chemistry with one another, that I never really felt like I was watching any of them act.  The film was shot in a way that lets you live inside the scene, not just as a viewer but sometimes as a slightly uncomfortable participant, and as a result, all of the characters feel like friends and family almost right from the start.  Van Wykck’s Henry, for example, is the perfect blend of geeky cool.  Watching him try to navigate high school with little success is kind of like being transported back in time and watching yourself at the peak of your own awkwardness (or was that just me?), often from a perspective that was too close for comfort.  Maybe not everyone has carefully labelled collections of inane artifacts of life in their bedrooms, but we do all have those things that we love, that help make up who we are, and in that respect, Henry’s pieces of self are the same as anyone else’s.  You really root for the kid – feel for him – even as you’re sort of glad that you’re not him.  And secretly sort of wish you could be.

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Steven McCarthy’s james kind of reminded me of a sexy cool mash-up of Lost Girl’s Kris Holden-Reid and Gogol Bordello’s lead singer Eugene Hutz.  Maybe just because he’s a tall, cute, bearded guy in a band, but regardless, there was a certain quality involving arrogant charm that I found appealing, and realized right away that I couldn’t judge Claire at all for being attracted to him.  In another actor’s hands, that role could have been creepier and pretty despicable, but McCarthy adds an extra dimension to James that makes him easy to like.  As Claire’s unapologetically self-absorbed mom, Annie, Fiona Highet has a remarkable ability to command attention to her character every moment that she’s on screen, even when she’s not saying or doing much of anything.  Staring out a window, staring adoringly at Bob the sometimes boyfriend, chatting up James in the kitchen, or glumly watching television, the fact that she barely looks at her daughter registers just moments before realizing that she’s also not engaged the camera at all.  Every other character has a way of laying themselves bare before the camera, to bring the viewer even more into the story unfolding before them.  But with Annie, it was her distance from us that set her apart – Highet was able to make the viewer feel as neglected by her as Claire does, even while filling a room with her character’s presence on screen.  Magnificent.

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Finally, no review of Picture Day would be complete without a few resounding accolades thrown in the direction of Susan Coyne, who embodies Henry’s mother, Ruth, in the film.  Her love and adoration of her son is evident in every frame, as is her near-desperate need to be loved back by him.  She tries to be the perfect mother, and accepting of her son’s unique sensibilities, but at the same time, she struggles to know when to put her foot down and set an adult example – like everyone with a teenaged son, really.  Though not everyone is necessarily as patient as Ruth, that could also stem more from a sense of not knowing what to say or do, rather than a particularly high tolerance for teen boy crap.  Best evidenced in the scene where Henry returns after having snuck out of the house one night, Ruth gives him the mother glare, slaps him, and clutches him into a tight hug.  Pretty much sums up their relationship, I’d say, and Coyne played it – and every scene – to perfection.

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A quick shout out must also go to comedian Mark DeBonis, who played the scene-stealing Bingo Hall Guy, as that’s another character who could have just been a secondary background player in someone else’s hands, but DeBonis invested him with real charisma, and not only made him a pleasure to watch, but also became instrumental in driving the story forward, which was another unexpected little piece I loved about the movie.  I also really enjoyed every scene between Tatiana’s Claire and Catherine Fitch’s Vice Principal.  I was so NOT Claire when I was in high school, but I knew some kids like her, and then taught some Grade 8 girls who were no doubt little Claires in their own right by the time they graduated high school, so watching these two actresses play off of one another was a real delight.  Each moment rang true to me, and without those actors with that script and that director, it all could have come off as somewhat superficial.  Instead, the viewer is granted access to the wonderful world of the VP’s office when you’re in trouble and – incredibly – when you’re the one trying to help this stubborn girl who doesn’t know her own potential.  The scenes between Fitch and Maslany never seemed to be one-sided, and that in itself is a pretty amazing feat of balance and reward, as well.

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I’ve mentioned the kickass soundtrack, but my ability to discourse about music is stunted by my complete inability to sound like I know what I’m talking about, so beyond simply saying “I loved it”, you can go check it out for yourself over on the film’s official website here.  As well, a special mention of the incredible local talent that was tapped for this film, including of course the main band, the ElastoCitizens, and a brief yet amazing performance on screen of Humble The Poet (who I’m pretty sure is a guy I went to teacher’s college with, so Kanwar, if that’s you, WELL DONE, DUDE!!!) – freaking incredible – wait til you see it!!!

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Finally, I have to say, as a writer, I am pretty jealous of Melville’s brilliant script.  There are so many lines that should be printed onto t-shirts, en masse, and toute de suite!  There are moments of quiet, where no words are spoken, and scenes pass on Claire’s face alone, usually with whatever music she is listening to.  But beyond those moments, the dialogue in this script is incredibly top notch.  I laughed so much throughout, and yet hesitate to call it a comedy, because there is far more heart and depth here than any mainstream film in the comedic realm would dream of including.  Some of it is nostalgic, remember what it was like to be a teenager ourselves.  Some of it was the result of the feeling of supreme intelligence that comes when you see a character do something that you know is going to end badly.  Some of it comes from the unexpected wisdom of the characters and their interactions with one another.  And some of it is a well-placed and impeccably-delivered line when the viewer’s brain has tried to go on ahead in a different direction.  All of it, however, comes from the heart.  This is life.  It’s funny, it’s ridiculous, it’s heart-breaking, it’s soul-healing, it’s large, it’s minute and every moment of it is  ours.

It’s Picture Day.

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Picture Day is screening all week at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  Get your tickets here or at the door, and spread the word!  This one is not to be missed!

Find more at the film’s official site, Twitter, and Facebook pages.

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