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In an interview just before he began shooting his sophomore feature, filmmaker Pat Mills dubbed it “Dirty Dancing meets Cocoon for girls with low self-esteem.” As droll loglines go, that’s a pretty accurate capsule description of Don’t Talk to Irene, which brings together teen misfits and cast-off seniors for a nasty-wholesome empowerment romp. The knack for biting dialogue that Mills brought to Guidance is still evident, although his new effort can’t match the bracing sting of his wickedly funny debut, which revolved around the filmmaker’s delirious performance as a role model so bad he was good.
The bad behavior in Irene isn’t quite so original. At the center of the comedy is a friendless, overweight 15-year-old who’s determined not to let her size get in the way of her cheerleading dreams. Invested with a convincing mix of self-reproach and fearless optimism by newcomer Michelle McLeod, Irene quickly finds her groove among the residents of a retirement home. The film, though, takes a while to hit its comic stride. With its fast-flying, self-conscious pop-culture references and vagina-centric jokes, this riff on underdog movies doesn’t entirely dispel a certain eager-to-please, eager-to-shock aura.
Mills and company do successfully rally in the final stretch of the go-girl, body-positive adventure to make the central character’s necessary triumph winningly sweet, goofy and satisfying. And while the recent body-positive drama Patti Cake$ didn’t live up to its Sundance-hit box-office expectations, the irreverent Irene occupies its own rung of the subgenre, and fans of Guidance will certainly be eager to catch the latest from Mills’ genially poisoned pen. The participation of Geena Davis and Kids in the Hall alum Scott Thompson will be a further lure.
Decidedly not by-the-numbers is our first glimpse of the pariah Irene: in a dumpster, talking to a maggot, hopeful that she’s found a friend. When it comes to companions, the closest she has is the disembodied voice of Davis, channeled through a League of Their Own poster on Irene’s bedroom ceiling. Irene calls her a god, and with good reason. All girls — and women — should be so lucky to have such a guiding light: Dispensing kindness, wisdom and kickass strength by example, Davis (who also appears onscreen in new and recycled footage) is the ultimate inner-monologue voice, providing balm for wounded feelings and encouragement to get out there and go for it.
She’s also the necessary counterforce to Irene’s insanely overprotective martinet of a mother, Lydia (Anastasia Phillips). TV, the internet and cellphones are off-limits to Irene; so is the living room — because, the dejected Lydia reminds her, “living stains.” It’s no wonder that Irene hides her cheerleader-tryout plans from her mother, even though she finds inspiration in videos of Lydia as a pompom-shaking queen of the squad, before the scandal of teenage pregnancy ended her A-list high school reign.
The joylessness with which Lydia has settled into suburban single parenthood and her job as a limo driver is par for the course in their hometown, whose only distinction is that it’s the “most insignificant geographical location in North America,” per Davis’ voiceover narration. Paul Sarossy’s cinematography and Cailin Bator’s production design make that assessment hard to argue with, mining Hamilton, Ontario, locations for all their strip-mall mediocrity.
In the midst of this overload of conformist, lifeless blah, a flashy gender-nonconforming high-schooler like Tesh (Andy Reid, very good in something of a stock role) would naturally be drawn to Irene for her “subversive” determination to be a cheerleader. And mean girl Sarah (Aviva Mongillo) would be drawn to her as the potential victim of a cruel prank, which lands both girls, along with Sarah’s spineless boyfriend, Robbie (Romeo Carere), on the school’s suspension list. They’re assigned community service at Maple View, the retirement home that, in one of the movie’s best comic conceits, is located conveniently and depressingly next to the school.
Between the hallway Muzak and the uptight facility manager (an effective but underused Thompson), Maple View is a sad place, though perhaps no sadder than the world outside its wallpapered rooms. But it gives Irene a chance to watch forbidden television, and Mills a chance to tweak that old chestnut about old souls and the salutary effects on them of visionary, inspired youth. In this case, the vision is a reality show talent contest, and inspiration arrives in the form of vodka, smuggled from Lydia’s liquor cabinet to the variously bitter and bored septuagenarians whom Irene recruits for her dance crew.
Besides McLeod, a crucial element of what does work in Don’t Talk to Irene is a trio of actors playing retirement home residents: Bruce Gray, Joan Gregson and Deborah Grover as, respectively, the pugnacious newbie Charles, the guileless Millie and the sex-obsessed Ruth. The smoky-voiced sincerity with which Grover slings putdowns is something of a mean-spirited marvel, and all three performances avoid the oldster default modes of saccharine or cutely feisty.
From first tentative rehearsals to road trip, you can see where the “let’s put on a show” gumption is going. But the newly empowered teenage choreographer and her ragtag troupe ride their own giddy momentum. With an eleventh-hour complication from Mills and a major assist from Milli Vanilli — rescued from the cassette-tape trash heap of musical history by Irene and a clerk at the local vinyl shop (Christopher Persaud) — the whole thing crests in an infectiously delightful sequence that also manages to pay tribute to the dreary suburban terrain. It’s almost enough to make you forget the earlier sections of the film that pushed too hard — that, like a still-trying-to-be-seen Irene, didn’t trust us to get it.
Production companies: Alyson Richards Productions in association with Lithium Studios
Cast: Michelle McLeod, Geena Davis, Scott Thompson Bruce Gray, Anastasia Phillips, Deborah Grover, Joan Gregson, Aviva Mongillo, Romeo Carere, Andy Reid, Christopher Persaud
Director-screenwriter: Pat Mills
Executive producers: Alyson Richards, Ed Gernon, John Laing, Mark Gingras, John Bain
Producers: Mike MacMillan, Alyson Richards
Director of photography: Paul Sarossy
Production designer: Cailin Bator
Costume designer: Kendra Terpenning
Editor: Tiffany Beaudin
Composer: Erica Procunier
Casting directors: Sara Kay, Jenny Lewis, Mark Bennett
Choreographer: Marc Kimelman
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: The Film Sales Company
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