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The queen of humblecore mixes art and life

A scene from “i am a good person, i am a bad person”

3 out of 4 stars

Title
i am a good person/ i am a bad person
Written by
Ingrid Veninger
Directed by
Ingrid Veninger
Starring
Ingrid Veninger, Hallie Switzer
Genre
Drama
Classification
14A
Country
Canada
Language
English

It may be a wry joke that the very modestly budgeted Canadian feature i am a good person/i am a bad person begins with a kind of down-market money shot. While their teenaged son bellows about something or other from the other side of a locked bedroom door, a married couple engage in some furtive fooling around, culminating in a spit-take that would seem outrageously graphic if it weren't also so amusingly banal. It's a moment that seems to push against taboos while also rooting the action in a recognizable everyday reality.

This sharply double-edged gesture is very much in keeping with a running motif of twinned perspectives. As the title suggests, i am a good person/i am a bad person is a film that tries to see things from both sides of its slender story. It's basically a duet between two characters: Ruby White, a struggling independent filmmaker hawking her wares on the international festival circuit, and her 18-year-old daughter Sara, who joins her mother on one of these jaunts across the pond. That Ruby and Sara are played by real-life mother and daughter Ingrid Veninger (the film's writer and director) and Hallie Switzer imparts a provocatively autobiographical element to the proceedings, as does the knowledge that the film was speedily conceived and produced during a real-life trip much like the one onscreen – less a case of art imitating life than being quickly shaped and moulded to its contours.

This subtle commingling of dramatic and quasi-documentary imperatives has been Veninger's MO over the course of three increasingly confident and impressive features. Her ability to make compelling drama out of limited resources and quotidian scenarios has made her something of an Canadian-indie darling – the reigning queen of a self-created genre that might be termed "humble-core." And yet what's most striking about i am a good person/i am a bad person is how un-ingratiating it is, starting with Veninger's own performance. If Ruby White is meant to be a self-portrait of Veninger as the hustling microbudget auteur, it's hardly overly flattering, locating deep veins of insecurity and self-regard underneath the character's bubbly exterior.

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Ruby's wearying behaviour creates a rift between her and Sara (who is nursing some worries of her own) which catalyzes the rest of the narrative. They decide to split up for the remainder of the trip, with Sara rerouting from Britain to Paris to visit her cousin and Ruby heading to Berlin for more screenings, one of which prompts a serious crisis of confidence. Ruby's storyline is more symbolically potent – chastened by an audience member's response to the film, she dons a sandwich board scrawled with the film's title and wanders through the city polling civilians about their self-image – but Sara's journey is the heart of the picture.

Switzer, who previously starred in Veninger's similarly flyweight Modra (a road-movie-cum-romance shot in and around the filmmaker's family home in Slovakia) does deceptively artless work. As a young woman with suddenly good reason to measure the distance between herself and her mother, she adroitly manages a few moments of dramatic heavy lifting while keeping her performance loose and off-the-cuff in accordance with the film's overall style. In a way, her best co-star is cinematographer Benjamin Lichty, whose DV camerawork is nimble enough to keep up with certain on-the-fly developments while also allowing for stray moments of visual beauty – glancing grace notes for a film that plays beautifully in a minor key.

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About the Author

Adam Nayman is a contributing editor for Cinema Scope and writes on film for Montage, Sight and Sound, Reverse Shot and Cineaste. He is a lecturer at Ryerson and the University of Toronto and his first book, a critical study of Paul Verhoeven's SHOWGIRLS, will be published in 2014 by ECW Press. More

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