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The debut feature film from Toronto writer-director Chandler Levack stars Isaiah Lehtinen as Lawrence and Romina D’Ugo as Alana.Courtesy of VHS Forever Inc. / Mongrel

There is a wonderful, unintentional but perhaps unavoidable symmetry of casting that cuts through the sharp new Canadian comedy I Like Movies.

The debut feature film from Toronto writer-director Chandler Levack stars Isaiah Lehtinen as Lawrence, a cynical and sometimes unbearable teenage cinephile, and Romina D’Ugo as Alana, his thirtysomething manager at the Burlington, Ont., video store where they both work circa 2002.

As the aspiring filmmaker Lawrence, who has dreams of attending NYU’s film school, Lehtinen is asked to play someone hoping to break into the industry against all odds – something that the actor himself, making his feature-film debut here, knows a thing or two about. Meanwhile, Alana, as the film reveals in careful moments that peel back her character, has already put herself through Hollywood’s wringer – a series of big breaks and false starts that D’Ugo can relate to as well.

“It was easy for me to sink into Alana’s life because she’s a culmination of me and every actor I have ever gotten to know,” D’Ugo says in an interview. “There are a small percentage of us who consistently work, who make a career of it for themselves, but for most of us, the numbers are not in your favour. With Alana, I resonated with that heartache of pursuing your dreams.”

While the Toronto-born actress has been immersed in the entertainment industry since graduating from Sheridan College – roles in Degrassi: The Next Generation and the 12 Monkeys series, small parts in such movies as Hairspray and How She Move, a spot on So You Think You Can Dance Canada’s Top 20 – I Like Movies is her first lead role in a feature.

“I’m sure there are some very blessed, hardworking people who have upward trajectories, but my own career is like following a heartbeat across a graph – such highs and so many lows, periods of emptiness without work,” she says. “But you never know when things are just around the corner that will hit.”

The Vancouver-based Lehtinen, meanwhile, unintentionally found himself aping Lawrence’s cockiness when going up for the role, so certain was the actor that he, too, was destined for fame. Or at least the kind of fame that comes with starring in a micro-budget Canadian movie.

“To be totally honest, I thought after submitting the first audition tape that I just had it in the bag, any callback was a mere formality,” says the actor, who was coached through his first read-through by his best friend and fellow Canadian actor Adam DiMarco, who would soon score a role on the second season of HBO’s The White Lotus. “But then there was another audition, and then another. I think I was called back at least three times. But when I first read the script, I just knew this character resonated with me on such a personal level. I am Lawrence, and he is me.”

It is tempting to say that Levack, a Globe and Mail contributing film writer who makes the leap to the other side of the camera here, simply got lucky with her serendipitous casting. But that would be overlooking the fact that she was lucky to get the movie made at all.

Produced with the assistance of Telefilm’s micro-budget Talent to Watch financing program, the movie took years to develop and, once it finally did shoot in the midst of the pandemic – was a far cry from the perk-filled sets that even a guest spot on a Canadian television series would offer.

“Normally, you get a trailer, someone shuttles you to the set, there’s an elaborate truck with craft services. Here, there was a door on set of the video store that led to ‘the staff room,’ but behind that door was the one space that acted as our trailer, our green room, our craft services spot, our producers’ office, the hair and makeup room, the medic team’s COVID-testing station – and I loved it,” recalls D’Ugo, whose manager initially tried to convince her to turn down the film (she has a new one now). “That energy and creative buzz is percolating all around you, so that set-up has its perks as well.”

From left to right, Andy McQueen as Brendan, Alex Ateah as Shannon, Isaiah Lehtinen as Lawrence and Romina D'Ugo as Alana in I Like Movies.Courtesy of VHS Forever Inc. / Mongrel

“I mean, I made almost no money on this, but it was also so personal and passionate that it was like working on a small production of community theatre,” adds Lehtinen. “It was the best acting boot camp that I could have asked for. I’m in every scene of the movie, there are paragraphs of dialogue, but now there’s nothing anyone can throw at me that I wouldn’t be prepared for.”

The sweat equity has paid off. Thanks to Levack’s keenly observed, often laugh-out-loud hilarious script and Lehtinen’s and D’Ugo’s rich performances – the former reminds you of a young Jonah Hill meets Philip Seymour Hoffman, while the latter’s layered delivery begs for a future collaboration with indie titan Nicole Holofcener – I Like Movies debuted to enthusiastic word-of-mouth at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. (It has since been named the best Canadian film of the year by both the Vancouver Film Critics Circle and the Victoria Film Festival, and is up for a Canadian Screen Award for Best Editing.)

“I don’t know if we were prepared for five-hour rush lines at TIFF, but I was very confident that the film would resonate with audiences who, well, like movies,” says D’Ugo.

Now, as I Like Movies opens in theatres across Canada – domestic distributor Mongrel Media is giving it a decent-sized push for an ultra-low-budget Canadian comedy, including, naturally, a spot at the Burlington Cineplex – Lehtinen and D’Ugo will reckon with the same questions that their characters end up staring down toward the end of the movie. So: What’s next?

“This movie has changed my life – not in the biggest, most insane way that I can’t go outside, but I feel like my career is on a different path,” Lehtinen says. “I’m operating on a different level as a performer.”

D’Ugo, meanwhile, is shooting a new feature in L.A., where she is based, and is also writing her own project, which she hopes to one day get into production. But she is grateful that I Like Movies is, already, making such an impression on audiences, and perhaps inspiring other artists to go the distance, too.

“I can only hope that it will help other filmmakers realize that making something is possible and doable,” she says, before adding, “with maybe just a little more grants and money.”

I Like Movies opens in Toronto, Burlington, Ont., Hamilton, Ont., Vancouver and Montreal on March 10; Winnipeg on March 11; and throughout other Canadian cities this spring