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A Simple Curve

Written and directed by Aubrey Nealon

Starring Kris Lemche and Michael Hogan

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Classification: 14A

Rating: **

Nature and nurture clash in southeast British Columbia's verdant Slocan Valley in Aubrey Nealon's directorial debut, the delayed coming-of-age comedy A Simple Curve. Nealon, the child of hippies who came to Canada from the United States during the Vietnam War, mines his upbringing for this story about the difficulty of escaping from paradise.

Caleb (Kris Lemche) is a 27-year-old who lives, works and shares a blue-jeans-and-flannel-shirt uniform with his widowed father, Jim (Michael Hogan). The opening scene, when the father and son fail to get a bank loan to keep their business alive, establishes the conflict: Jim's high standards have pushed family business to the edge of bankruptcy, and Caleb is ready to snap.

Conveniently, a private plane comes winging in over the valley, bringing in Matthew (Matt Craven), a former hippie friend of Jim's who is now a real-estate developer. The relationship between Matthew and Jim is competitive (they were rivals for Caleb's late mother), but Caleb and the cynical Matthew hit it off, especially when Caleb sees a chance to save the business. As the scenes clip mechanically along, a host of issues pop up. Will Caleb settle for pragmatism over idealism? What back story will Matthew provide about Caleb's hippie parents? Can Caleb convince the attractive single mom, Lee (Pascale Hutton), that he'll be around for the long haul?

The largest question is whether writer-director Nealon wants to create a hugs-and-insults sitcom or a bittersweet leaving-home drama. Repeatedly, Caleb and Jim's dialogue is characterized by bluff, self-conscious jokiness, punctuated by sweeping shots of the Kootenay Rockies, accompanied by uplifting acoustic music. As the mountains loom majestically, characters play juvenile pranks on each other. Matthew takes Caleb up in his plane and pretends to be an inexperienced pilot just to get a reaction; Caleb pretends its time to clean out of the septic tank while secretly setting up his father's surprise party.

Other scenes explore the ways in which Caleb finds small-town life mortifying. Jim wants to have a heart-to-heart while Caleb's seated on the outhouse toilet. Jim talks too frankly about his sex life for Caleb to bear. When Caleb takes his girlfriend out to a restaurant, he tells her that every woman he's ever slept with is in the same room with them that evening.

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Things pick up briefly with the arrival of a couple of mellow neo-hippies, the doe-eyed Buck (Kett Turton) and appealing Erika (Sarah Lind), with her braids and buttery soft shoulders. They are determined to befriend Caleb, but he's allergic to sincerity and he responds to them with an exaggerated rhetorical sarcasm ("Are you explaining to me what carob is?" or, "Are we in Grade 4?"). Too often, though, Caleb seems to be expressing his annoyance strictly for the benefit of himself and the camera.

A Simple Curve was selected as one of the top 10 Canadian films of last year in an annual poll sponsored by the Toronto International Film Festival. Yes, there's craft in Nealon's writing, but it seems more suited to the riffing non-sequiturs of episodic television than the narrative arc of a film. This is one of those comedies-of-place, such as The Beachcombers or Northern Exposure, that operate with a safety net: A cast of quirky characters is set against picture-postcard scenery and the idea is, if you grow weary of one, you might appreciate the other.

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