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Marthe Bernard in Ruth Lawrence's Little Orphans, shot in St. John's, Nfld.Handout

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  • Little Orphans
  • Directed by Ruth Lawrence
  • Written by Emily Bridger
  • Starring Emily Bridger, Rhiannon Morgan and Marthe Bernard
  • Classification N/A; 79 minutes

Little Orphans, the feature debut of St. John’s, Nfld., director Ruth Lawrence, opens with two children playing (seemingly without any parents around) on a model of a ship that has been broken in two, as thirtysomething Gwen (Emily Bridger) anxiously watches.

Right off the bat, Lawrence draws attention to the heart of her film’s themes: abandonment and the re-emergence of the past.

Gwen has come back home to St. John’s along with sister Kay (Rhiannon Morgan) for their other sister Janet’s (Marthe Bernard) wedding, where they’re supposed to reunite with their mother who abandoned them as kids. All three sisters await her arrival hopefully, but skeptically, putting them right back in their childhood circumstances.

Much of the story revolves around the past repeating itself, especially in the case of Kay, who is the most outspoken in her resentment toward their mother – but makes similar mistakes with her own daughter, a child who lives with her aunt in St. John’s, while Kay herself lives in Calgary.

The nostalgic feeling of returning to a small hometown is palpable – especially a town where, say, the clerk working at the local bridal store was also the host of the party you attended the night before. The three adult sisters share beds, one revisits her relationship with an old flame, and even older wounds are reopened.

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Little Orphan stars Emily Bridger, Rhiannon Morgan and Bernard.Handout

Kay, the family misfit, is as defiant and dysfunctional as she is entertaining. One of the script’s highlights finds her walking into her sister’s new in-laws’ home and asking where the bar is in this “dumpster” – all while her sisters watch on nervously.

Shot in St. John’s, the coastal scenery grounds the film in something tangible and familiar to Canadians, especially Newfoundlanders. Lawrence sprinkles signature local customs throughout the film, including the ubiquitous “screech-in,” a traditional welcome to newcomers to the island: kissing a codfish before taking a shot of Screech rum. Women sit around the kitchen table filled with empty wine glasses, singing The Rose and the Briar by local musician Pamela Morgan, the lights of the town at night glimmering through the window behind them.

Still, the plot could have benefited from some sort of subversion – something to make the familiar trope of a dysfunctional family wedding a little less predictable.

Lawrence’s film is refreshingly female-driven, though, both in front of and behind the camera. Her depiction of fraught relationships, betrayal, and the complexities of family will draw viewers in and stir their own nostalgia for home – whatever, and wherever, that might be.

Little Orphans is available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes, starting March 23

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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