Scarborough (2021)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

, 2021. . Screenplay by , based on her novel. Cinematography by Rich Williamson. Produced by Shasha Nakhai. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by Rich Williamson.

The Toronto suburb of the title is the setting for this ensemble piece that revolves around the lives of three children in an economically underprivileged neighbourhood. Laura () has just been abandoned at a bowling alley by her drug-addicted mother and picked up by her unstable white supremacist father (), installed in his bare apartment where he hardly has any food or clothes for her. Bing () is a little boy who is making small adjustments to what we come to understand is a future queer identity as he watches his single Filipino mother () support them as a manicurist, putting up with no end of condescension, sometimes harassment, from her customers in the name of saving up her tips. Sylvie () is an indigenous girl who is forced to grow up fast when her father’s injury forces their family to live in a small motel room, her mother Marie () trying to keep things together while dealing with her young son who has a behavioural disorder that she can’t identify, and which the doctor at a walk-in clinic won’t properly assess.

These characters all connect at an extra-curricular program at the children’s grade school, a learning program run by the kindly Ms. Hina () who hands out snacks with each lesson and draws struggling families like these to spend time in her room. Taking on the challenges that these characters bring with them, Ms. Hina helps Marie untangle her messy home life and tries to reach Laura despite the fact that her xenophobic father doesn’t want the Muslim teacher going anywhere near his kid.

Based on the novel of the same name by Catherine Hernandez, this heavy drama is very much concerned with making sure we empathize with the lives of people who are vulnerable to being forgotten by a system that, in having become stretched so thin, has little to offer the people who need it most. In their fear that some people might not get the message, however, directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson oversimply a number of situations and reduce more than a few characters to boring stereotypes. It’s possible to show that the system is failing and is biased towards people of colour without actually making every white character a hectoring nuisance, and Kanani’s irresistible performance as Ms. Hina would be that much richer if she got to be a real person with moments of failure instead of the flawless symbol that is presented here (and making her board supervisor, played by , an unsympathetic shrew actually lets the system off the hook anyway).

As a result it’s a powerful and touching film, but not a brave one, if it was it would risk the complication of allowing us to sympathize with Laura’s parents even while we don’t forgive them, and would trust us to love and believe in the other characters even if we discovered that they had their failures as well. So much humorless finger-pointing between victims and villains is a lot to take for 136 minutes, but the venture is saved by the characters of the children and by the actors who play them. Whatever nuance and complexity is missing from the adults is there in the younger personalities, who are by turns sassy, funny, heartbreaking and exasperating, and the camera lingers generously as they try to work out their feelings about the frequently angry or unhappy adults around them.  Bing is a sweet innocent who is clearly approaching an understanding about his gender and sexual identity which is both exciting and scary,and the script respects the internal struggle within himself as he negotiates his own self-acceptance.  Sylvie is funny and irreverent, but we see clearly that she uses it as often for her own pleasure as she does to hide fear and pain, while Laura is suffering under poverty and neglect but is presented as a curious explorer.  For them, the film is not only worth watching, but they quickly makes its flaws a distant memory, and only makes it that much more unfortunate that the film doesn’t favour their perspectives more.

Toronto International Film Festival: 2021

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