'Black Conflux': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A haunting, humane twist on thriller conventions.

A vulnerable high-schooler and an angry loner are drawn together by fate in Nicole Dorsey's atmospheric debut feature.

The lives of two emotionally damaged small-town misfits slowly converge in Canadian writer-director Nicole Dorsey's accomplished debut feature, Black Conflux. Laced with subtle suspense and slow-building dread, and elevated by its strong visual aesthetic, Dorsey's stylish coming-of-ager premiered in Toronto last week. This melancholy rumination on lost boys, lonely girls and toxic masculinity has sufficient depth and polish to secure more festival bookings, although its sly deconstruction of thriller tropes will likely limit its theatrical chances.

The setting is Newfoundland, a rarely filmed big-screen canvas that serves as a kind of symbolic chorus character in the drama, wild and innocent, beautiful and empty. The year is 1987, and high-schooler Jackie (a luminous Ella Ballentine) is struggling to find the right balance between her chaste, studious, choir-loving side and the more rebellious adolescent thrills of hanging with the cool crowd, smoking weed and drinking beer and fumbling sexual exploration. With a boozy, party-loving aunt as her distracted guardian, Jackie appears ominously vulnerable to the darker forces that prey on teenage girls.

As Jackie wrestles with growing pains, Dorsey finds neat parallels and visual echoes in the struggles of a mentally unstable brewery worker in the same town, Dennis (Ryan McDonald). Haunted by vaguely explained tragedy, Dennis is a ticking time bomb of pent-up rage. Like an early forerunner of the Incel movement, Dennis is consumed with bitter resentment against all the women who have spurned his love and lust. He is also assailed by hallucinations, notably a ghostly harem of fantasy female figures who haunt his darker moods. His instability and short-fuse temper seem to promise terrible violence.

Dorsey structures Black Conflux like a teasing dance, with her two main protagonists forever orbiting each other, their paths frequently crossing but never quite meeting. Initially this feels like a smart stylistic device, though the film's midsection becomes a little baggy and repetitive, with too much familiar teen-girl material about bitchy school cliques, passing out drunk at parties and flirting with sweet boys who turn out to be entitled creeps. A tighter edit might have served this otherwise elegantly composed narrative better.

Without getting into spoilers, when Jackie and Dennis finally meet on a lonely stretch of beach road, Dorsey subverts expectations with a tonal shift that may leave some viewers frustrated, but which also feels like a smart rebuke to the misogynistic mechanics of thriller convention. Instead of delivering on the story's unspoken promise of impending horror, she ends on an ambiguous, compassionate and arguably more feminist note.

However successfully it pulls off these narrative feints and swerves, Black Conflux is a constant visual delight. Adopting a shared mantra to “make it weird,” Dorsey and cinematographer Marie Davignon punctuate the drama with gorgeous imagery, from luxuriant aerial shots of Newfoundland's wild, watery landscape to mesmerizing extended close-ups of fizzing sodas and scuttling insects. Music is also pleasingly woven into the drama, from Jackie's choir singing and bedroom soundtrack of authentically cheesy 1980s Canadian rock to a deftly orchestrated single-shot dance scene in a roadside bar. Even if this deceptively artful debut feels a little muted and unpolished in places, it is plainly the work of a skilled filmmaker with ample future potential.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Production company: Band With Pictures
Cast: Ella Ballentine, Ryan McDonald, Olivia Scriven, Luke Bilyk, Sofia Banzhaf, Amelia Manuel
Director-screenwriter: Nicole Dorsey
Producers: Michael Solomon, Mark O’Neill
Cinematographer: Marie Davignon
Editor: Sophie Leblond
Production designer: Melanie Garros
Sales company: ICM Partners
100 minutes