'Elephant Song': Toronto Review

Elephant Song Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Indie PR

Elephant Song Still - H 2014

Performances enliven an adaptation whose stagebound roots still show

Mouse teases cat in a 1960s mental hospital

A troubled young man puts his overseers through their paces in Elephant Song, Charles Biname's adaptation of a 2004 play by Nicolas Billon. Though handsomely decorated in mid-sixties institutional detail, the dialogue-centric film retains the feel of a contest of wills playing out on a sparsely dressed stage; as such it will be most at home on small screens, though its cast's pedigree may attract interest from small theatrical distributors.

The boy in question is highly intelligent, gay and a notorious troublemaker in this juvenile mental institution. "Have you never met Michael?," two staffers ask the hospital's administrator, as if first-hand experience would make even the strangest account of his behavior seem perfectly plausible. The staffers, Dr. Green (Bruce Greenwood) and Nurse Peterson (Catherine Keener), are being interviewed after the film's events, recounting in flashback an episode that has clearly landed someone in hot water.

Dr. Green had been assigned to interview Michael (Xavier Dolan), the last patient seen by a Dr. Lawrence before the latter disappeared without a trace; the anxiety-laced hope was that Michael would know what happened to him. Greenwood is all business at the outset, determined to reveal no soft underbelly to a patient known for manipulation (you'd think this kid was Hannibal Lecter), but can hardly hide his surprise, and occasional rage, at the things that come out of the youth's mouth.

Dolan plays Michael like the quickest-witted tough in a 1950s juvenile-delinquent film, going heavy on the period's signifiers of homosexuality as if to preempt any questions Dr. Green might feel the need to tiptoe up to. "I'll make you a deal, quid pro quo," he volunteers (okay, maybe Michael is Dr. Lecter), saying he'll reveal Lawrence's whereabouts if Green lets him have the stuffed elephant and chocolates he likes to use during therapy.

That elephant theme is a rather heavy-handed symbol for the boy's troubled youth, but the film isn't damaged by it beyond the fact that using it for the title is needlessly obscure. Dolan's performance is very hard to take at first (it hardly matters that this is intentional), but he shines when he's not needling Greenwood; the interplay between the very different actors is engaging throughout. Even so, the film's most affecting moment doesn't happen here: Dolan's surprisingly casual later interactions with Keener, who has hovered nervously on the sidelines of this two-hander, are more poignant than any therapeutic breakthrough a shrink's office setting might offer.

Production companies: Seville Pictures, Melenny Productions

Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Xavier Dolan, Catherine Keener, Carrie-Anne Moss, Guy Nadon, Colm Feore

Director: Charles Biname

Screenwriter: Nicolas Billon

Producers: Richard Goudreau, Lenny Jo Goudreau

Director of photography: Pierre Gill

Production designer: Danielle Labrie

Costume designer: Ginette Magny

Editor: Dominique Fortin

Music: Gaetan Gravel, Patrice Dubuc

No rating, 99 minutes