Daddy Roger has been running a strip club in Guelph, Ont. (pop. 118,000), for more than 30 years and weighs a killer 400 pounds. Mamma Brenda is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, anorexic, 85 pounds of denial. Younger brother Sammy has been working at the club for 15 years and, against club policy, is dating one of the strippers, an aspiring nutritionist named Gill. Tell me: What can a poor boy do ’cept make a documentary about the great dysfunctionality of it all? Which is precisely what Shawney Cohen and fellow Torontonian co-director Mike Gallay spent the past three years doing, finally distilling the results into this lean 78-minute feature.
The documentary – which opened the 20th Hot Docs festival in Toronto in April – takes its handle from the name given to the combination nightclub (a.k.a. The Body Shoppe) and 32-room motel (a.k.a. Sue’s Inn) operating in and around a 19th-century mansion that once was home to Guelph brewery baron/politician George Sleeman.
A filmmaker of the Todd Phillips Academy would probably find much mirth in these circumstances – The booze! The boobs! The low-living low-lifers! The drug overdoses! The carpet stains! – but not Cohen. Mind you, he’s not entirely averse to a laugh. In fact, one of The Manor’s great strengths is its deadpan, occasionally dark humour: Early on, for example, Cohen mentions how, at 13, instead of the hockey pads he desired to mark his bar mitzvah, he got a lap dance. Mostly, though, it’s one wan story, steadily and sturdily told, about the ties that bind and the forces that fray them – inertia in the face of time’s great cyclic rhythms.
The film’s dominating (and domineering) presence is Roger, one of those bantering, canny, loud-mouthed types who, at 60, must always have the last word. A graduate of the school of gruff love, he is not utterly bereft of virtue, wisdom or sensitivity (for instance, we see him turn Sue’s Inn into the Sue’s Inn Support Centre for addicts and the homeless); it’s just that he seems incapable of not throwing his weight around, metaphorically and physically.
Morbidly obese, hungry “to feel young again,” Roger undergoes stomach surgery that reduces his weight by 70 pounds – yet within a year his compulsive appetites have regained all that lost fat. Wife Brenda, by contrast, seems intent on disappearing, courtesy of a diet of cucumbers and lettuce, coffee and Pizza Hut even as she cooks up a storm for her ever-expanding husband. It’s Brenda, with her Walter Keane eyes, dazed demeanour and dried stalk of a frame – “the ghosts of electricity howling in the bones of her face,” who tugs most at Shawney Cohen’s heartstrings and earns the audience’s greatest sympathy. To his credit, Cohen doesn’t soft-pedal his own involvement in the travails of this family romance.
If there’s a flaw in The Manor, it’s that occasionally it seems more cinéma than verité, less about serendipity than set piece. For example, the scene where Shawney and Gill discover Brenda’s stash of laxatives and diuretics in a kitchen cupboard feels too pat and camera-convenient, drama-wise. The same goes for a scene near the film’s end when Shawney asks his dad if his legacy upon his death will just be the stupid strip club/motel and Roger calmly pulls out plans for a 300-unit condominium project.
Over all, though, a fine directorial debut, at once frank and compassionate.
The Manor runs May 10 through 16 in Toronto, May 3 to June 6 in Guelph, June 7 to 13 in Waterloo and London.