Some guys loading junk into an old Ford Windstar yell, "Mikey! Mikeeeeeey!" presumably at some other guy named Mikey. Sweat-mottled Middle Eastern men slouch on chairs outside discount furniture stores, chain-smoking darts. A man on an e-bike blaring Frank Sinatra's The Best Is Yet To Come hangs a precarious left turn on Bloor Street West, car horns blasting over Ol' Blue Eyes crooning, "You think you've seen the sun, but you ain't seen it shiiiiiiiiiine." A friend walks by. Then one of the guys who lives above me. And then a little girl working on a popsicle, on this, the day they're calling the hottest of the year.
In its mix of sketchiness and hominess, the area around Bloor Street West and Lansdowne Avenue (sometimes called "Bloordale Village," though the name sounds awfully posh), feels like a definitive Toronto neighbourhood. The forces of gentrification, in the form of upmarket cafés and vegan bakeries and a new pet-grooming boutique, are repelled by dingy convenience stores, cheapo roti places, sun-bleached Chinese restaurants and reptile zoos.
It seems like an odd place for a middle-aged man to roil through a midlife crisis. And yet it's exactly where Erwin (Erwin Van Cotthem) shacks up when his marriage goes sideways in director Kazik Radwanski's second feature, How Heavy This Hammer, which makes its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival's Contemporary World Cinema program.
Standing astride his two young sons on the roof of his ramshackle bachelor pad – which is the roof of Radwanski's own apartment building – Erwin drinks deep the stale flavour of Bloordale. "It's pretty cool here, huh?" he boasts, begging some enthusiasm from the bored kids. "You can see everything from here! Coffee Time! Ali Baba's! See? It's amazing!"
"Ah, the glory of Coffee Time!" says Steve Gravestock, a TIFF senior programmer specializing in Canadian cinema, and fellow Bloordale Villager. "I've lived here for seven years and I've never set foot in the Coffee Time."
We're sitting at one of the picnic tables on the patio of Stella, a halfway-dingy bar at Bloor and St. Clarens, known in the neighbourhood for its sandwich boards advertising "BEER + CURRY = LOVE." As Erwin's go-to watering hole in How Heavy This Hammer, and a place equidistant from mine, Radwanski's and Gravestock's homes, Stella seemed like the perfect place to chat about the film, Canadian cinema and the current state of Toronto filmmaking. (Disclosure: In addition to living within about 250 metres of one another, Radwanski, Gravestock and I have also been playing in the same pickup ball hockey league for years.)
Radwanski's previous feature, Tower, was about an awkward dork named Derek making his way through an often-unforgiving Toronto. It was a nuanced character study, one that exhibited Radwanski's muscle for exploring single characters, often in suffocating close-ups. "That's something I've always gravitated to," he says. "It started with my short films. It started as a focus on acting. That's what I thought I was worst at, working with actors. It grew out of that."
This focus on a single-character drama – Derek in Tower, Erwin in Hammer – connects Radwanski's films to what Gravestock identifies as a "minimalist movement" in Toronto filmmaking. "It's stuff that's really character-driven," says Gravestock, "In some weird way I think Take This Waltz was even part of that. Of course it's a bigger movie, with more characters and more locations. But it felt very specific to a neighbourhood."
This focus on neighbourhoods, and people moving within what (to locals, anyway) are recognizable spaces, seems to define a lot of Toronto filmmaking, from Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz to Reg Harkema's Monkey Warfare to Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson's recent Diamond Tongues – a millennial mumblecore-ish movie about a struggling actress. But where those films all seem personal, even if it's in a superficial, "Hey, I recognize that bar!" sort of way, Radwanski's movies feel removed from his experience.
Radwanski works alongside producer and fellow Ryerson grad Dan Montgomery. Their production company, MDFF – for Medium Density Fibreboard Films, a nod to the low-budget, handmade quality of their movies – has cultivated a fruitful relationship with TIFF, which has provided a home for several MDFF movies, either in the festival itself or the annual Canada's Top Ten programming slate.
Throughout his shorts and features, Radwanski has zeroed in on an elderly woman with Alzheimer's (Princess Margaret Blvd.), a classroom of young children (Green Crayons) and bulky, middle-aged fathers (Out in That Deep Blue Sea, How Heavy This Hammer). Yet, Radwanski believes he's able to explore intimate feelings and experiences through these dissimilar characters.
"I think my films, in a funny way, are really personal," he says. "They're about me, or my family, or relationships I've had. But then I try to ground that by finding someone who's completely different than me, and try to incorporate their life."
Like Tower's Derek, Erwin seems at times to barely register as character. With him preoccupied by a computer strategy game, drifting in and out of family life like a roving balloon, and constantly falling asleep, his midlife crisis is muted, even a bit pitiable.
Shot with shaky, hand-held cameras that seem to warp around star Van Cotthem's massive frame, Hammer stylistically evokes the work of British socialist realist filmmakers such as Ken Loach and Lindsay Anderson, or those of Belgian sibling duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who have a knack for grinding their characters through private tragedies.
"This one has more close-ups," Gravestock notes of Hammer. "There's a more claustrophobic, almost hazy feel to it."
For Radwanski, these sorts of low-key personal predicaments make for recognizable drama – the stuff of real life. "It is a pathetic problem this character has," he explains. "But at the same time, it is their problem. It is defining their lives. It's his opera."
In a film festival that banks on the draw of big stars and Oscar-baiting prestige pictures, the more subdued operatics and hyper-local smack of How Heavy This Hammer are refreshing. Bracing, even. Like the shrill sounds of a symphony of day-drunks arguing outside a run-down Chinese restaurant, or the fortifying blast of a sludge-thick cup of Coffee Time's brownest bean juice first thing in the morning, as the too-hot sun breaks across Bloor West, bathing the hipsters and artists and marked-down mattress wholesalers in the gleaming magic-hour gloss can make anywhere look like Hollywood.
How Heavy This Hammer screens at TIFF on Sept. 13, 10 p.m., Bell Lightbox; and Sept. 15, 5 p.m., Bell Lightbox.