Molly is a 16-year-old student. Ben is her 26-year old teacher. Molly Maxwell is the coming-of-age tale that explores their illicit relationship, at which point you might be excused for that barely stifled yawn and attendant mutter, “Not again.” Yet don’t be so hasty. The redeeming difference in this tale is the perspective of the teller – Canadian writer/director Sara St. Onge, who, being a woman, is able to avoid the politically correct path of assigning single blame, of too easily separating victim from villain. The result is a first feature that, much like its young protagonist, is sometimes awkward and stiff but always refreshingly candid. And honesty is a tonic to even the most tired genre.
The loose template here would be An Education, another film from a female director (Lone Scherfig) that upsets conventional expectations about the callow girl/older man scenario. But that was set safely in the past. This film dares to enter the charged present, where Molly attends an alternative high school in Toronto and enjoys the benefits of a privileged upbringing, including happily married parents who are nothing if not supportive. Too supportive perhaps – in their loving eyes, her every effort is over-applauded as a mark of incipient brilliance.
Yes, the script is adept at seeing through the dangers of a certain brand of modern parenting. So is Molly. Smart enough to know the limits of her smartness, she has grown suffocated by all that undeserved praise and become a bit of slacker at the chummy, egalitarian school where, since no one is allowed to fail, everyone must be a resounding success. Ben the English teacher, a failed musician, shares her discomfort with the place, and they bond over his casual dissing of the attention lavished on each individual student: “So many precious snowflakes in every room – it’s like a blizzard.”
And then, when Molly pursues an independent study project under his tutelage, they bond some more. Their scenes together in his apartment, three in total, form the controversial crux of the picture. Molly (she is seen reading Lolita) is aware of her sexual powers and grows progressively more artful in applying them. They’re both aware that her very presence in that apartment is illegal and a violation of his authority role. Ethically, the issue is clear-cut.
But, emotionally, it isn’t. Their mutual attraction is genuine, not just sexual, partly because Ben is a young 26 and fumbling about in search of his own identity. He knows that doesn’t exonerate him, which explains his ultimate refusal to accept the offer Molly is eager to make: the sacrifice of her virginity to a man who, for her, seems an infinitely better candidate than the insensitive yet socially acceptable boys of her acquaintance. Both the principal actors, Lola Tash and Charlie Carrick, do a convincing job of walking that tightrope between maturity and immaturity, albeit from different angles – the girl can be precociously adult, the adult suspiciously childish.
Arguably, St. Onge is guilty of manipulating the characters to strengthen her point, affording Molly too little vulnerability and Ben too much sympathy. Yet that doesn’t diminish the point’s validity – that sometimes, not always, the distinction between predator and prey is easier to make in law than it is in practice; that sometimes, not always, a punishable crime does not have a simple victim. The film’s climax confronts that possibility and is engineered by another character whose behaviour, like so much else here, manages to feel simultaneously inevitable and surprising.
At this early stage in her career, St. Onge may not be a technically gifted director, but she is an intrepidly brave writer, possessing the courage, along with the candour, to venture into delicate sexual territory and insist that, from her perspective, the truth can be complex. If so, the perspective is crucial – only a woman, who once was a teenage girl, could provide it.