'Werewolf': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Werewolf - Still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of TIFF
Cruel story of Canadian youth.

Writer-director Ashley McKenzie chronicles the painful efforts of two recovering drug addicts in this debut feature, which makes its European premiere at the Berlinale.

Those of us who see Canada as an ideal refuge for the problems currently plaguing America should check out Werewolf, a stark, disquieting portrait of a pair of recovering drug addicts trying to scrape by in the suburban wilderness of Cape Breton Island.

Marking the first feature effort of writer-director Ashley McKenzie, the film is reduced in scope and seems to skirt the line between documentary and fiction, making for a dark study of mutual dependence that’s more about observation than drama. After premiering in TIFF last year, this potent minimalist debut should continue its respectful festival run and find distribution at home.

Shot almost entirely in close-ups and medium close-ups, which limits our vision to the claustrophobic universe of the two leads, the movie follows the painful travails of Blaise (Andrew Gillis) and Nessa (Breagh MacNeil), a young couple hooked on Methadone and trying to make enough to pay for their daily doses. They live in a ruin of a trailer that’s barely livable, and the only real work they can find is mowing lawns around town with a broken-down lawnmower they have to drag behind them.

Though they are in the prime of their youth, Blaise and Nessa are clearly struggling to get by, and the first half of the movie tracks their futile efforts to crawl out of the muck. McKenzie’s gaze is unflinching in this regard and reminiscent of Pedro Costa’s heroin-addict chronicle In Wanda’s Room — although the decadence here is a bit more stylized, with DP Scott Moore focusing on minute details: a shoulder, a window frame, an Oreo cookie grinder that Nessa works at the ice cream parlor where she eventually finds gainful employment. Talk about the daily grind.

The title Werewolf is by no means arbitrary and takes on increased meaning as Blaise becomes more and more unstable, transforming from a taciturn, rather obnoxious boyfriend into a full-blown mental patient in the film’s latter half. The title could also refer to the animalistic way in which he and Nessa gulp down their bottles of Methadone each day at the local pharmacy, like a couple of wolves getting their feed on — both Gillis and MacNeil, the latter acting for the first time, are entirely convincing in their roles — and McKenzie’s portrait of addiction is crude, alarming, but most of all extremely sad.

Her film could have stopped there, yet by concentrating on Nessa’s effort to get her act together in the closing reels, she offers up a semblance of hope, at least for one of the characters. Otherwise, Werewolf is perhaps most illuminating for its depiction of a seldom-seen side of Canadian life, and until Nessa pulls out a few bills of local currency midway through the film, one could easily believe that this is all taking place somewhere in the American Midwest. McKenzie deserves credit for revealing such a troubling facet of her homeland, and even if the shallow focus — both literal and figurative — of her movie can be frustrating at times, she bravely never turns away.

Production company: Grassfire Films
Cast: Andre Gillis, Bhreagh MacNeil, Mark Woodland
Director, screenwriter: Ashley McKenzie
Producers: Nelson MacDonald, Ashley McKenzie
Director of photography: Scott Moore
Production designer: Michael Pierson
Costume designers: Kathleen Darling, Maggie MacCormick
Editor: Ashley McKenzie
Composer: Youth Haunts

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: La Distributrice des Films

78 minutes