'White Lie': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A gripping cautionary tale for the Fake News era.

Kacey Rohl plays a college student falsely posing as a cancer patient in this Toronto fest premiere.

A troubled young woman traps herself in a dangerous spiral of deception in White Lie, fabricating a cancer diagnosis in order to solicit attention, sympathy and charitable cash donations. This Toronto world premiere from Canadian writer-director duo Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis is the kind of intelligent, well-crafted indie thriller that earns respectable notices and festival bookings. Theatrical prospects will likely be niche, though its gripping race-against-time plot and newsworthy subject matter should boost the film's audience potential. The factitious disorder of falsely announcing a serious medical condition on social media, which psychiatrists have dubbed “Munchausen by Internet,” has escalated in recent years, with several high-profile fraudsters exposed and jailed.

Thomas and Lewis jump into the heart of their nervy, noir-ish plot right from their opening scene. Canadian TV actor Kacey Rohl (The Killing, Hannibal, The Magicians) stars as Ontario college student Katie Arneson. Alone in her bathroom, shaving her head over ominously discordant music, Katie is preparing for the next public appearance in the role she has carefully scripted for herself — that of a brave young woman fighting potentially terminal cancer. Sickness has made Katie a media star and much-loved local celebrity, with a charity fundraising campaign behind her. If she handles it right, her fictional illness could also help secure her college scholarships and financial grants.

But Kate's facade is staring to slip, with too many inconsistencies and unanswered questions. Desperate to maintain her fake victimhood status in the face of mounting skepticism, she enlists crooked doctors to falsify her medical records, scamming money from her estranged father Doug (Martin Donovan) and endlessly patient girlfriend Jennifer (Amber Anderson) to pay them off. When Doug confronts Katie with his woundingly blunt suspicions that she is faking her sickness, then goes public with his accusations, she is forced into a desperate damage limitation exercise, covering up big lies with even bigger lies as social media outrage turns against her.

Driven by nuanced, persuasive performances and shot with an urgent, jittery tension, White Lie is a compelling close-up character study of a recklessly needy anti-heroine caught in an impossible dilemma of her own making. Nervy and kinetic, it succeeds as a small-scale psychological thriller. Most pleasingly, Rohl and the filmmakers manage to make Katie sympathetic and relatable without excusing her behavior, neither wholly villain nor victim. The film's gritty, grungy visual aesthetic and a doomy, scouring score by Lev Lewis add extra layers of dramatic discomfort.

Frustratingly, White Lie feels a little too narrow in focus, staying in single-viewpoint mode from start to finish, without opening up the broader emotional hinterland that might have given Katie's story more dramatic shading. Thomas and Lewis offer scant explanation for her outlandish con trick, besides revealing that she previously faked a childhood illness in order to take time off from school following her mother's death. A little more detail on her family, friends and fragile mental state might have shed some welcome light on her opaquely motivated misdeeds, and elevated a small-scale personal story into something more universal.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Production companies: Film Forge Productions, Babe Nation Films, Lisa Pictures
Cast: Kacey Rohl, Amber Anderson, Martin Donovan, Connor Jessup, Thomas Olajide

Directors-screenwriters: Calvin Thomas, Yonah Lewis
Producers: Karen Harnisch, Calvin Thomas, Katie Bird Nolan, Yonah Lewis, Lindsay Tapscott
Cinematographer: Christopher Lew
Editor, music: Lev Lewis
Sales company: Playtime
96 minutes