The historic town of Brigus, in Newfoundland's Conception Bay, has a renowned vista. But you'd never know that from watching Crackie, Sherry White's arresting debut feature film. White had planned to include the view in her opening tableau, scenes moving from the Brigus dump outward. But on shooting day the fog rolled in, obscuring any ocean backdrop. With a small budget and a tight time frame, she and her crew decided to go ahead anyway.
"I think it worked," White says a couple of weeks before Crackie hits the screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. "It gives it a more mythical feeling."
The opening is also appropriate for the story. Not only do the fog-infused scenes add an unplanned haunting beauty to the opening, but the impulse to make the best of a difficult situation is a central theme. Crackie is about 17-year-old Mitsy (played by newcomer Meghan Greeley), who's been living since childhood with her stern grandmother (Mary Walsh) after being abandoned by her mother (Cheryl Wells). Mitsy harbours fantasies of finding her mother in Alberta. Meanwhile, she adopts a dog (crackie is a Newfoundland term for a mixed-breed mutt) to ease her loneliness. The dog is no Lassie - and things get even tougher when Mitsy's mother makes an unexpected return.
Losing the iconic Newfoundland view suits Crackie on another level: Aside from the odd colourful turn of phrase, this story could be set in any isolated community. The movie played at Perspective Canada in Cannes in May, and in July it was shown at the Karlovy Vary festival in the Czech Republic, where it was compared to British director Ken Loach's work for its authenticity. The comparison is apt; as in Loach's films, these characters live beyond the mainstream, and there's a heartfelt sense that real change is hard and comes incrementally.
White describes Crackie as "a small story. It's kind of dark. I think it's a film with hope. But you never know what people are going to think. There's some harshness to it."
While there are harsh moments, there's also a modest optimism and humour. Nevertheless, it's the antithesis of so many films being made these days, stories, as Mary Walsh said just after shooting wrapped, of "middle-class childhood where people are fair and children don't get hurt." Crackie's vision "somehow feels like the truth to me."
That truth is enhanced by some stunning cinematography and captivating performances by such actors as Walsh and Joel Thomas Hynes. And Meghan Greeley, in her first film role, is being called a revelation.
Greeley, 21, came to Crackie almost out of nowhere. She had just finished her third year of theatre school and was working at the Grand Banks Theatre Festival when the casting call went out. A friend of hers was asked to audition, and suggested Greeley come along to try out too. Mitsy appealed to Greeley: "She may come across as shy or quiet but she's had a rough life and she's hopeful. ... She has a lot of dreams and wants to go to school and change."
White was struck by Greeley. "She had that star quality without looking like a model," she says. "She is beautiful, but she's not typical looking and she was shy. There's something about her that seemed so Mitsy, that she was curious and smart and you want to listen to her even though she has very little to say."
Greeley says she is grateful to White for taking a chance on her. After all, Crackie is very much White's film. An actor, writer and director (with credits ranging from Hatching, Matching & Dispatching to M.V.P. and Sophie), the thirtysomething White began writing the script in 2001 . She knew both that she wanted to direct it and that she wasn't yet ready, so she would put it down and leave it for a long time. "By the time I was ready to direct it," she says, "I felt able to look at the script more objectively. I was able to see what I was seeing a bit more." In 2004, she won the Writers Guild Jim Burt prize for the screenplay.
The route from actor to writer to director may not be that common, but White, now finishing a stint writing for the upcoming drama series Copper, says she's drawn to all three for the same reason: "They're all about metaphor, about empathizing with humanity in some way, trying to relate to it or define it somehow. Acting is more about the individual character, writing is the story and directing is the world."
White is not the only person on Crackie with a hyphenated resumé. Walsh is also a writer and director; Hynes a novelist and playwright. As White says, working in Newfoundland "you don't necessarily get pigeonholed into one thing because there's a smaller pool and you have to do everything."
This will be White's third time at TIFF as a director (her award-winning short films have screened there). But she sees this as her premiere for Crackie, as it will be the first time she'll see the film with an audience.
While she awaits the response, she'll be accompanied by cast members and other well-wishers, including Noreen Golfman, founding director of the St. John's International Women's Film Festival (which chose Crackie to close this year's festival) and board member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation.
Says Golfman, "Sherry's on a trajectory. A lot of it is sheer hard work, but this film, while not her breakthrough, confirms the talent we knew she had and shows a very impressive creative independence."