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film review

Sarah Gadon and Raoul Trujillo in Octavio Is Dead!Sabrina Lantos/The Farm Film

  • Octavio Is Dead!
  • Written and directed by: Sook-Yin Lee
  • Starring: Sarah Gadon and Rosanna Arquette
  • Classification: PG; 100 minutes

Rating:

3.5 out of 4 stars

Britney Spears and Toronto multidisciplinary artist Sook-Yin Lee have one thing in common: both understand the uncertain period of being not a girl, not yet a woman.

In Lee’s directorial debut, 2009’s Year of the Carnivore, her heroine (a then-unknown Cristin Milioti, now of Black Mirror and How I Met Your Mother renown) discovered her womanhood through a series of ill-advised and often humiliating hookups. The quirky comedy had her playing a grocery-store detective who, among her trials and tribulations, busted a shoplifter only to bestow a sex act upon him in the woods in an attempt to gain the sexual experience to impress her crush (Mark Rendall).

The self-destructive sex comedy – Juno by way of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – perhaps hasn’t aged too well into 2018, but its audaciousness was commendable at a time when complex and confused female protagonists rarely graced Canadian screens, especially ones made by their female counterparts.

Nearly a decade later, Lee’s second feature, Octavio Is Dead!, still privileges a young woman’s sexual awakening but it is a radically different animal. Instead of making another brash and quirky comedy, Lee has created a stirring psychosexual ghost story, led by a commanding Sarah Gadon as you’ve never seen her before.

The actress stars as Tyler, a withdrawn young woman living with her volatile mother (Rosanna Arquette, whose performance recalls the charged emotional intensity of Xavier Dolan’s many mommies) in an unknown city. Change comes swiftly when our mother and daughter learn that Tyler’s estranged father Octavio (Raoul Max Trujillo) has died (hence the title), leaving Tyler his dilapidated academic study. Disobeying her mother’s orders, Tyler decides to run away to learn more about the father she never knew.

It is among Octavio’s dead flowers, musty hardcovers and erotic portraits that she encounters her late father’s ghost. His spectral presence, which creeps into Tyler’s heart, mind and, later, closet, leads our heroine on her own journey of sexual discovery. It is one borne of cross-dressing and an intense attraction toward her father’s former student (Greek actor Dimitris Kitsos in his English-language debut), who believes she is a boy. And it is all pretty hot.

Languid and sensual where Lee’s first feature was stroppy and bright, Octavio Is Dead! captures something rarer still: a heroine who is not a girl, not yet a woman, and maybe not a woman at all. The tension and blurred boundaries between gender, love, sex and desire is what makes the film such an exciting addition to the canon of queer Canadian cinema.

While your enjoyment will depend on a certain suspension of disbelief that Gadon’s striking features could conceivably pass for male when disguised in a short haircut and a vintage men’s suit, a look beyond your own biases will be rewarded with a love story in which the haunting complexities of sexuality and gender are treated with cinematic urgency.

Here, Gadon leans back to play a character who likes to watch. Captured in chiaroscuro cinematography and the occasional neon lighting, the actress displays amazing range in her bright blue eyes alone, shifting between fear, desire and the tantalizing space between. Tyler wants it bad, even if she can’t find the words to express her own desires. And while Lee’s first film made her heroine’s sexual fumblings the butt of many cruel jokes, here the subject is treated with dignity, with the filmmaker investigating how hard it is to truly understand what turns us on and why.

Ultimately, Octavio Is Dead! is a gothic romance with a fevered vision all its own. (The film’s droning synth score performed by Lee, her partner Adam Litovitz and Blood Ceremony’s Alia O’Brien sets the tone perfectly.) While sex and death have always been intangibly linked, only Lee dares to show the nightmarish vision of your No. 1 crush having sex with your late father’s corpse. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait another decade to see this promising auteur’s next cinematic evolution.

Octavio Is Dead! opens June 22 in Toronto and Regina.