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A still from Werewolf.

4 out of 4 stars

Written by
Ashley McKenzie
Directed by
Ashley McKenzie
Andrew Gillis and Bhreagh MacNeil

The opening shot of the new drama Werewolf is of a piece of rope, tied between a tree and a rusted-out trailer. It sits static for a few seconds, just long enough for us to fixate on the hastily tied knot in its centre, before it's pulled in by someone at the edge of their own rope, a young junkie named Blaise.

The next shot, a quick cut to a pair of bare feet gently hanging in the breeze, grimly and expertly sets the tone for director Ashley McKenzie's fearless feature debut. This is a raw, intense movie circling on despair, hopelessness and inevitable dead ends. It is about the dark. But in plumbing the pitch black, Werewolf offers the distinct hope of a brighter future – at least, a brighter future for Canadian cinema.

Homegrown filmmakers don't have it easy in Canada, this is no secret. Yes, the government funding can be generous – sometimes, occasionally, depending on who you ask. Sure, it's easier now than ever to pick up a camera and shoot, thanks to the advent of digital technology – in certain circumstances, depending on what kind of movie you're hoping to make, sort of. But even if you devote enough of your years to generating a script, to finding a mentor to help you navigate the bureaucracy of funding agencies, to persuading collaborators to follow your vision, well, you still have to figure out how audiences – paying audiences – will see the damn thing.

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If Werewolf and McKenzie deserve anything, then, it is to be seen.

Simple in narrative but layered in execution, Werewolf is one of the all-time-great Canadian first films, a calling card on par with Atom Egoyan's Next of Kin, Guy Maddin's Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Don Owen's Nobody Waved Good-bye and, more recently, Andrew Cividino's Sleeping Giant. It is a harrowing, captivating portrait of addiction and dependence, and a master class in what amateur actors can accomplish with the right guidance. But more than that, it is just so remarkably self-assured, so confident, so intimidating in its own purpose that it is frightening.

Plot-wise, it's mostly a two-hander, with McKenzie following two Cape Breton addicts as they meander across the island, killing time and mowing lawns between their next gulps of methadone. Blaise (Andrew Gillis) is the more experienced of the couple and the more haunted. He's clearly counting down the minutes until he can exit his existence. Vanessa (Bhreagh MacNeil), meanwhile, is just 19 years old, tired of her plight but not quite as beaten down to give up on life entirely. Maybe.

"On a scale of one to 10, 10 being the happiest day of your life and everything's perfect, where would you rate yourself today?" a clinic official asks Vanessa toward the middle of the film.

"A three," she replies, her face blank.

"Three" is about the same metric McKenzie uses to conceptualize Werewolf's version of Cape Breton, a washed-out landscape of overgrown lawns and unpaved roads that's perfect, in the summer at least, to hide a pair of ghosts. Blaise and Vanessa, not quite a couple but also incapable of separating themselves from each other, are shot almost entirely in tight or medium close-ups, the better to align our vision with their own oppressive, claustrophobic sense of selves. (Not every moment is a study in misery, though. There's a real sense of wonder, for instance, in how McKenzie shoots the simple doling out of a soft-serve cone, or the grinding up of Oreos to make cookies and cream. The only minor misstep: An odd fantasy sequence that superimposes a video game over one of Blaise's opioid-induced hazes; it feels insincere, as if it belongs in Jonas Akerlund's Spun.)

What's even more impressive is the novice nature of everyone involved. Not only is this McKenzie's first film, but Gillis and MacNeil's, too. Yet, both actors deliver extraordinarily lived-in performances devoid of vanity, the type entire careers lead toward. When Vanessa confronts Blaise's selfish nature toward Werewolf's end, it's difficult to see where MacNeil ends and her character begins.

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McKenzie made Werewolf for a relative pittance (about $250,000), with help from such programs as Telefilm's microbudget initiative and the Canada Council for the Arts. It took her a few years, including a stop at TIFF's intensive Talent Lab, to get the film going. Once made, it played TIFF, Vancouver, Berlin. And now it opens, for just seven days, at Toronto's Carlton Cinema. It's not the most illustrious spot to debut a work of such startling power (anyone who's been to the shoebox-y Carlton knows that's true), yet it is typical of the unsettling amnesia that affects the Canadian film industry: Support the filmmaker during the process, but don't support the film during the exhibition.

McKenzie is releasing Werewolf via a partnership between the small Montreal company La Distributrice and her own production house, Grassfire Films. She not only directed the movie, but wrote, edited and co-produced it. She is doing everything right, everything the system expects and demands. We should do the same and turn out to the Carlton in droves. Toronto, you need to sell this run out.

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