Skip to main content
film review

Michelle McLeod in Don’t Talk to Irene.

Films about bullying pose a unique problem to the critic tasked with reviewing them. If the review is too mean and uncharitable, said critic essentially invites being called a bully themselves – picking on some dorky, dweeby, pigeon-chested little-movie-that-could in a bid to shore up their own confidence. And what has the critic ever done, huh?

Though hot off a world premiere in TIFF's Contemporary World Cinema program, Canadian writer-director Pat Mills's Don't Talk To Irene already feels like a bit of a throwback to a different era of beautiful loser cinema. It's titular outcast, Irene Willis (newcomer Michelle McLeod), is a bespectacled, scowling, overweight high schooler.

Irene dreams of being a cheerleader, against the protestations of her overprotective, hard-boozing single mom (Anastasia Phillips). A former high-school mean girl herself, Irene's mom knows just how vicious teenagers can be. Undaunted, Irene slaps together a homemade squad uniform, gets embroiled in a debasing initiation prank and ends up suspended, banished to a retirement home adjacent to her high school for a community service sentence.

On its face, Don't Talk to Irene scans like a low-budget, sleepy, terminally Canadian riff on high-school-loser hallmarks: Ghost World, Napoleon Dynamite, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Superstar, the music video for Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus, etc. The problem is that such narratives, which glorify the dazzling supernova-level weirdness of their socially exiled protagonists against the grinding sameness of high school's social gauntlet, feel dangerously outmoded all of a sudden.

Ours is a world, after all, where nerds, dorks and the extremely online shore up the parapets of a renewed white supremacist movement, and where multimillionaire professional athletes take bold, principled stances (or stoops) against police brutality. The jock/nerd hierarchy, at one time a seemingly eternal construct of the social order, has been upturned, if not inverted entirely.

What differentiates Irene is her singular oddness. She's not some stock nerd from Geek Central Casting, but a fully realized, individuated character: chubby and dorky, yes, but also vulgar, stubborn and totally unflappable. Irene's the rare on-screen dork who demands recognition not for her hidden beauty or uniqueness, but for her coarseness. She curses, she plies senior citizens with vodka nipped from her mom's liquor cabinet, she socks her bullies point-blank in the jaw. She suffers nothing of the typical nerd's toxic self-persecution complex.

Irene's sad fate is that she finds herself in a film that so clumsily clomps through the motions of a high-school loser comedy. A few fine, funny performances from Scott Thompson (as the hard-ass retirement home superintendent) and Geena Davis (who appears as herself, as a hallucination encouraging Irene's empowerment) enliven the proceedings. The movie is muddled, however, by the relish it takes in openly mocking Irene, and by hitting its sappy, third act body positivity notes with heavy hands. Don't Talk to Irene feels rote and re-hashed, despite the strength of its central character and the ungainly charm of McLeod's performance. Watching Mills' film, one wishes it were as weird and wonderful as Irene herself. It's almost as if the writer/director doesn't realize how rare his own creation is.

And for that, he deserves nothing short of a righteous bullying: a "kick me" sign affixed to his back, a swirly in the boy's room toilets, an atomic-grade wedgie, a cyber-bullying campaign that results in an eating disorder, and sundry other high school-level humiliations.