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film review

Picture Day stars Tatiana Maslany as Claire, right, who’s grudgingly redoing her last year in high school but bonding with a young science whiz (Spencer Van Wyck).

Beginners with serious aspirations in pretty much any literary idiom are usually advised to "write what you know." Toronto native Kate Melville has taken that advice to heart with Picture Day, a debut feature that owes much to Melville's experience as a story editor and writer with TV's Degrassi: The Next Generation.

The film, which had its world premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, is the story of Claire, a teenager who, because of bad behaviour, chronic absenteeism and failing grades in calculus, history and remedial gym, is having to repeat her last year of high school in Toronto. On the cusp of adulthood, she seems interested in embracing none of its responsibilities nor, as an only child, decisively slamming the door on the fecklessness of adolescence. Her dad is long out of the picture, mom's depressed, neglectful and self-absorbed, and Claire, though quick-witted and impishly charming, is letting inertia listlessly carry her days and nights.

Into this milieu come James, the 33-year-old singer for a funk/glam-rock band called the Elastocitizens, and Henry, a Grade 9 science whiz at Claire's high school whom Claire baby-sat years earlier. Henry, we learn, has long pined for Claire, to the point of storing precisely labelled mementos of their time together in shoeboxes in his room. But neither of these chaps could be called mature men – James, for all his musical talent and charisma, is getting a bit long in the tooth to be driving a van to ill-paying gigs in Espanola and Sudbury and shagging someone who, Claire's sexual savvy aside, is hardly age appropriate.

Ping-ponging between worlds of adolescent frustration and delayed maturity, Melville never takes her narrative in any really surprising directions. But what Picture Day lacks in tension it makes up for in the writer-director's astute understanding of character and acuteness of observation. There are no foolish moves here, either of dialogue or of incident. And while there's plenty of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, none tips Picture Day into mindless sensation or Hangover-style improbability. Moreover, it's superbly cast, especially Regina-born Tatiana Maslany, who plays Clare as an affecting bundle of toughness and vulnerability, wrongheadedness and smarts, appetite and world-wariness, awkwardness and sensuality. It's no accident the performance won her ACTRA's outstanding performance award a couple of months ago. Almost as good are Steven McCarthy as Jim and Spencer Van Wyck as the science geek who lets Claire give him a blue dye job and an exotic but entirely fictitious backstory to enhance his appeal among classmates.

The plight of teens in an increasingly inhospitable world often doesn't much respect in the movies. Picture Day, however, is nothing if not respectful.