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It is the absolute worst time to run a Canadian film festival – but it is the best time to be a Canadian film festival patron. In the great film-festival rush to go virtual, no longer do audiences have to be in a specific city, and equipped with insider access, to be able to watch the fresh, exciting and innovative movies for which programmers searched long and hard.

Take the Whistler Film Festival. The B.C. event, now in its 20th year, has historically been a forgotten child of the country’s film-fest circuit. Taking place in December, and in not-exactly-easy-to-reach environs, it arrives long after the country’s cinephiles have had their fill from Hot Docs, Fantasia, TIFF, VIFF, Festival du nouveau cinéma de Montreal, etc. It is, regrettably, easy to ignore.

But this year, things are different. Not only is the entirety of WFF’s program available online across the country until Dec. 31, but it is also remarkably strong when it comes to homegrown cinema. While TIFF’s reduced 2020 lineup meant a curtailing of Canadian film, with only about a half-dozen titles on offer, WFF delivers some of the most intriguing domestic productions of the year.

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Here are this year’s highlights, and how you can watch them right now.

Québexit

Director Joshua Demers’s Québexit is one of those rare Canadian movies that tackles Canadian politics.

Courtesy of Whistler Film Festival

One of several WFF films made under Telefilm’s micro-budget Talent to Watch program, director Joshua Demers’s Québexit is one of those rare Canadian movies that tackles Canadian politics. (The last film I can recall doing so is Philippe Falardeau’s 2015 comedy My Internship in Canada. Maybe Québécois filmmakers are just more interested in the state of our country’s government.) Demers’s lean resources are apparent throughout his feature-film debut, but this satire about what happens when Quebec actually goes through with separation – inspiring another province to follow suit – is light, bouncy fun that rises above budgetary constraints. Most importantly, it features the most uplifting rendition of a Celine Dion song in Canadian film history.

Sugar Daddy

Kelly McCormack in a scene from director Wendy Morgan’s comedy Sugar Daddy.

Whistler Film Festival via The Canadian Press

I’m not sure what it is about Canadian filmmakers and the concept of “sugar babies/sugar daddies” – that is, young women who sell their time and companionship to older men, typically to help fund their college educations – but director Wendy Morgan’s comedy Sugar Daddy is the second 2020 film to tackle the subject after this fall’s TIFF hit Shiva Baby. Here, Kelly McCormack (Letterkenny, and soon to be headlining Amazon Prime Video’s A League of Their Own series) scripts and stars in a tale of what a “paid dinner companion” must do to make rent.

Underground

Québécois director Sophie Dupuis's Underground focuses on a mining disaster in rural Quebec.

Courtesy of Whistler Film Festival

Québécois director Sophie Dupuis made a splash in 2018 when her taut crime-saga thriller Family First (Chien de garde) became Canada’s official submission for the Best International Film category at the Academy Awards, and helped introduce leading man Theodore Pellerin to the masses (or, er, the few Canadian masses who caught the film). Now Dupuis is back with Underground, an intense and gripping thriller focusing on a mining disaster in rural Quebec.

All-In Madonna

Melanie Rose Wilson plays teenager Maddie, who discovers dark secrets about her father.

ARNOLD LIM/BLUE LAKE FILMS LTD

Another Talent to Watch production, director Arnold Lim’s feature debut promises to hit all the right coming-of-age notes. Focusing on a sheltered teenage girl (Melanie Rose Wilson) who has to contend with her rural community’s suspicions surrounding her father, All-in Madonna might just herald two startling debuts: Wilson, and the amazingly hard-working Korean-Canadian filmmaker Lim, who finished the film in his family basement at night while working full-time as a video journalist during the day.

Little Orphans

Little Orphans focuses on the dysfunctional relationship between three sisters.

Courtesy of Whistler Film Festival

One more Talent to Watch project brought into the world on a small budget, but hopefully set to make a big impact, is director Ruth Lawrence’s debut. Set in St. John’s during a family wedding, Little Orphans focuses on the dysfunctional relationship between three sisters, aiming for both compassion and tension in equal measure.

The 2020 Whistler Film Festival runs through Dec. 20, with titles available to watch until Dec. 31. All ticket sales are shared directly with the filmmakers (whistlerfilmfestival.com)

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