‘Weirdos’: Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of TIFF
Dylan Authors and Julia Sarah Stone in 'Weirdos'
A lovely, low-key memory piece, vibrant with the awkward grace of adolescence.

A couple of small-town teens hitchhike across Nova Scotia in a nostalgia-infused drama from Canadian indie auteur Bruce McDonald.

Fifteen-year-old Kit, the neat-as-a-pin runaway at the center of the affectionately titled Weirdos, hits the road carrying a suitcase whose contents include Andy Warhol’s autobiography and a blow dryer. As with most movie road trips, his journey through eastern Canada is occasion for self-discovery, and Kit has some crucial learning to do. He also has two insightful guides along the way: the Warhol look-alike “spirit animal” who appears to him from time to time, and his sensible girlfriend, who’s guardedly hopeful that she can entice him to consummate their relationship, fall in love with her and scrap his plans to relocate — until she understands, almost before Kit does, that he’s gay.

Working from a screenplay by Daniel MacIvor (Wilby Wonderful) that’s set in the summer of 1976, director Bruce McDonald has crafted a tender but never sappy memory piece. Shot in nostalgia-enhancing black-and-white, the sympathetic story of adolescent awakening is in a sense a rebuttal to fashionable Boomer-blaming. Continuing its fest run with a slot in the Berlinale’s Generation 14plus section, it revolves around likable leads and features a reliably compelling supporting turn from Molly Parker.

In the roles of artsy Kit and his tomboyish nominal girlfriend, Alice, Dylan Authors and Julia Sarah Stone (of AMC’s The Killing) are convincingly mismatched virginal soul mates, outsiders in quiet Antigonish. Lying to their parents — hers are pretending not to be getting back together, while Kit lives with his open-minded grandmother (Cathy Jones) and social studies teacher father, Dave (a very good Allan Hawco) — they head east to the relatively big city of Sydney. For reasons he can’t yet fully articulate, Kit is uncomfortable living with Dave, no matter how cool other kids think the bearded, laid-back schoolteacher is. In the assumed boho splendor of his ex-model mother’s life in Sydney, Kit has visions of acceptance and fulfillment. But the truth of Laura’s circumstances are an eye-opening lesson in the difference between art and romantic notions about it, as well as in the tough reality of mental illness.

Played with self-mythologizing pretense and fragility by Parker, Laura runs extravagantly hot and cold, bouncing between sweeping Martha Graham dance moves and verbal abuse. She feels in control when presenting “fancy cocktails” to her underage visitors. But Parker makes the inner turmoil evident whether Laura is holding it together momentarily or crumbling over her disturbingly murky relationship with landlord and “very good friend” Mr. Po (Vi Tang). A refugee from Cambodia, Po gives Alice a capsule lesson in the abuses of the Khmer Rouge while images of the American bicentennial celebration fill the Canadian TV screen.

Bolder than Kit, Alice wishes he didn’t care about being liked. She sees their trip as a romantic beginning. Her dreams of goodbye sex — or hello sex, or any sex at all — begin to fizzle on their first ride, when the mutual attraction between Kit and local kid Leo (Max Humphreys) becomes crystal-clear. What Alice doesn’t see is the bewigged “Not Andy Warhol,” as the credits call him, who occasionally counsels Kit as he grapples with the truth about his sexual identity and revelations about his family. As a playful narrative device, the art superstar hits the screenplay’s themes a bit too directly, but Rhys Bevan-John plays the part with an apt mix of droll, awkward and self-confident.

Also apt is Becky Parsons’ unfussy lensing, whether she’s capturing the coastal light of Nova Scotia locales, the shifting dynamics within cramped car interiors, or the way letdown and inspiration play across Stone’s expressive face. In a story that hinges on seeing and self-image, Alice is the story’s eyes, not least because she travels with two cameras, including one for 8mm movies. There’s a nice nod to the pre-selfie age when Kit, in his carefully chosen outfit, asks her to take his picture and she considers the need to ration film before snapping the shutter without warning, catching him unposed.

McDonald, who has taken previous road trips in a filmography that includes the music-themed features Roadkill, Hard Core Logo and Highway 61, taps into that place between self-conscious posing and impetuous action. Abetted by outstanding costume and production design and period-appropriate pop-rock on the soundtrack (Harry Nilsson, Edward Bear, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray), he perfectly balances nostalgia and in-the-moment drama. Weirdos is quietly alive with the sensuous detail of the road, the thrill of dislocation and the unknown territory of that once-in-a-lifetime cusp, being 15.

Production companies: Holdfast Pictures, Lithium Studios Productions, Shadow Shows, Visual Mechanics Union
Cast: Dylan Authors, Julia Sarah Stone, Molly Parker, Allan Hawco, Cathy Jones, Rhys Bevan-John, Vi Tang, Gary Levert, Stephen McHattie, Max Humphreys, Alex Purdy
Director: Bruce McDonald
Screenwriter: Daniel MacIvor
Marc Almon, Mike MacMillan, Bruce McDonald
Executive producer: Marc Savoie
Director of photography: Becky Parsons
Production designers: Matt Likely
Costume designer: Bethana Briffett
Editor: Duff Smith
Composer: Asif Illyas
Sheila Lane, Jenny Lewis, Sara Kay
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Generation 14plus)
Sales: Double Dutch International

84 minutes