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film review

Suzanne Clément plays the title character, Marlene, in the dark, stylish and often lyrical drama Sitting on the Edge of Marlene.Bettina Strauss

You and I buy lottery tickets, and cry a little to ourselves about our situations.

Marlene, though, plays a heavier and more extreme game, her desperation not the quiet kind. She pops "happy pills," runs small-time cons and loves (and leans on) her daughter intensely. She longs for a man, counting the days until her husband returns from the penitentiary. She's delusional, with romantic ideas on suicide – a ticket out is in her near future, one way or another.

And Tennessee Williams could pick her out in a crowded bar instantly.

If this first feature from the one-to-watch director Ana Valine were made in the 1970s, we could have expected to see someone such as Karen Black in the title role. As it is, no complaints at all, Marlene is portrayed lushly by the gifted actress Suzanne Clément, who stars in a dark, stylish and often lyrical drama that's just quirky and comical enough. Sitting on the Edge of Marlene is based on The Trouble with Marlene, a 2010 novella by Vancouver's Billie Livingston.

That would be Billie Livingston, the daughter of a miscreant father. She also wrote 2012's Giller-long-listed and somewhat autobiographical novel One Good Hustle.

Co-starring here is Paloma Kwiatkowski who, with the right level of angst, strength and poetic pragmatism, portrays a disadvantaged daughter who cares for her depressed grifter and shoplifter of a mother. Teenaged Sammie takes part in some of the scams, keeping one eye on the mark and the other on Marlene.

In many ways she's a lot like mom, though at least we have hope for her. But Marlene? Sure, occasionally, when a bottle of booze isn't pressed against it, her upper lip can be stiff. But while she has moments of pluckiness and resurgence, the biggest scam Marlene plays is on herself.

Have you seen the 2014 film Lowdown? It's often described as a biopic of the drug-addled jazz pianist Joe Albany, but the film is really about his young daughter and her against-the-odds struggle to emerge from a chaotic adolescence with her soul and dreams intact. Same here with Sammie.

A difference in the two films has to do with the relationship between the caretaker daughter and the incapable single parent. In Sitting on the Edge of Marlene, Sammie feels at least partly guilty for her mother's instability. As she walks to school, she murmurs the nursery rhyme about stepping on cracks and breaking her mother's back.

Of course there's no causal relationship between one's sidewalk manner and a parent's spinal mishap. But, late in the film, a booze-hounding Marlene is splayed on the kitchen floor, looking to down a Windex cocktail. When she tells her daughter that "if it wasn't for you, I'd be dead," Sammie's reaction is apologetic.

You see, Marlene wasn't thanking her daughter for keeping her alive, she was blaming her.

And Hallmark blanches.

Side stories here have to do with rebirth and second chances: Sammie investigates a roller-skating youth Bible group, while Marlene has opportunities with Fast Freddy, a con man who has more than one motive, but who obviously cares deeply for mother and daughter. He thinks they can be a family, and believes they're one big score away from turning around the messes that pass for their lives.

One good hustle, then. Sitting on the Edge of Marlene loses its way occasionally, but its aim is ultimately true. Well-acted, and with an often noir but always sympathetic tone, writer-director Valine's debut looks hard at the art of the self-con.

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