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Deragh Campbell plays Anne, a single daycare worker in Toronto who takes a skydiving lesson that helps her unlock an until-that-moment hidden piece of her soul in Anne at 13,000 feet.

MDFF

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  • Anne at 13,000 ft.
  • Written and directed by Kazik Radwanski
  • Starring Deragh Campbell, Dorothea Paas and Matt Johnson
  • Classification 14A; 75 minutes

CRITIC’S PICK

Confession time: I was once secretly thankful that the pandemic waylaid initial release plans for the new Canadian drama Anne at 13,000 ft. The week before the film’s scheduled March, 2020, opening, I spent much of my time staring at a blank Word document, struggling to come up with a review that would somehow convey, or at least articulately endorse, the artistic intensity that is present in nearly every frame of Kazik Radwanski’s bold, bracing feature. Anne is such a startling and overwhelming work that the act of discussing it can feel unapproachable and crippling.

So when Radwanski’s production company MDFF scuttled its distribution plans for a better, brighter to-be-decided tomorrow, I let loose a hushed, shamed sigh of relief. Another few weeks to think this film through, great. Because how long could this lockdown life last?

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Well. At the very least, the near-year between Anne’s intended theatrical rollout and this week’s cross-country virtual release has given me the necessary stay of execution to come up with something of a worthy critique. And while I cannot honestly admit that I used the time to do so, I can confess that Anne at 13,000 ft. has been living in my head, rent-free as the kids say, for much of the past 11 months.

For starters: I think it is now finally safe to confirm that Radwanski represents the brightest hope for the future of Canadian film. I’ve been repeating this easy sound-bite for the past several years, or as long as the Toronto-based Radwanski has been producing his intimate, nervy, shake-your-senses brand of character-study cinema: the features Tower (2012) and How Heavy This Hammer (2015), as well as the shorts Princess Margaret Blvd., Out in That Deep Blue Sea, Scaffold and Cutaway. There is simply no other homegrown filmmaker today experimenting with form and character, and coming out the other side with work that bends and breaks in the most affecting manner, as Radwanski.

For the lucky few who have seen Radwanski’s previous work – and I recognize that his audience is small, even within the qualifier of Canadian-film-industry small – it’s best to think of Anne as the capper to an unofficial trilogy: another empathetic portrait of a Toronto outsider struggling to exist within the arbitrary, often illusory limits of societal expectations. Where Tower and How Heavy This Hammer had their sometimes gentle, sometimes ready-to-burst male loners, Anne has a woman on the verge: a 27-year-old daycare worker with a shaky grasp on adult responsibilities and an even looser sense of personal boundaries.

As Radwanski follows Anne (Deragh Campbell) at her job, where she connects with her wards with the ease of someone who never quite escaped childhood herself, and at home, where she seems to walk on invisible eggshells, the filmmaker gradually and carefully builds a work that is half heartbreaking drama, half psychological character-study horror. Anne is never labelled with any specific psychological diagnosis, but it is clear that she is navigating her own particular kind of ever-waking trauma, one that colours relationships with friends (Dorothea Paas as co-worker/best friend Sarah) and family (Lawrene Denkers plays her exhausted mother).

Anne’s existence tears just a little further after Sarah’s wedding, where she gives a bridesmaid toast for the ages and ends up drunkenly paired with the all-around dubious Matt (played by Radwanski’s micro-budget film contemporary Matt Johnson). Possibly misreading Anne’s off-kilter energy as inebriated playfulness in the hopes of notching an easy lay, Matt soon comes to the realization, a few too many beats behind the audience, that something is decidedly wrong with their still-embryonic relationship. But the film is always careful to nudge its sympathies toward Anne – it is her that we warm to, and fear for, even if many of us would do just as Matt does and frantically search for the exit.

There are also moments of pure bliss for Anne, too. Between scenes of tumult, Radwanski mixes in snippets of his heroine’s title journey – a skydiving lesson that helps the character unlock an until-that-moment hidden piece of her soul.

Radwanski, who filmed the mostly improvised drama over the course of two years, using the same daycare that his mother worked at, can scratch a character until she bleeds. Using tight close-ups and shooting in a loose, hand-held style, the filmmaker evokes a powerfully intimate sense of claustrophobia. Together with cinematographer Nikolay Michaylov and editor Ajla Odobasic, Radwanski crafts a sincere, inventive, intensely clingy type of filmmaking that is as fearless as Anne’s own sky-high plunges.

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But at least half of the film’s ultimate power arrives courtesy of Campbell, who slips into Anne like a second skin. Between her work here and her recent films with regular collaborator Sofia Bohdanowicz (MS Slavic 7, this past TIFF’s excellent short Point and Line to Plane), Campbell is one of the most promising young performers this country has produced in some time. (And yes, that’s really her jumping out of the plane – there’s not a lot of money for stunt doubles or green screens when your film’s budget is about $200,000.)

Radwanski realizes how fortunate he is to have lucked into such a collaborator, too: Already, the pair are planning a follow-up. Titled Matt and Mara, the film will have Campbell play a professor struggling through her marriage just as a mysterious man from her past (Johnson, again) arrives on campus. I believe that this makes Campbell and Johnson Canadian cinema’s equivalent to Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, with Radwanski their Nora Ephron. Don’t question this analogy, just go with it.

Next month, the Toronto Film Critics Association will name the winner of its Rogers Best Canadian Film Award, worth a cool $100,000 (or enough to finance Radwanski for some time). Even as a semiactive TFCA member, I don’t know if Anne at 13,000 ft., which has been shortlisted for the prize, will win. But, for my second confession this review, it has my vote locked. This is a film worth celebrating.

Anne at 13,000 ft. is available virtually across Canada via digital TIFF Lightbox starting Feb. 19, followed by digital screenings via The Cinematheque in Vancouver starting March 5

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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