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Directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson
Written by Catherine Hernandez
Starring Liam Diaz, Mekiya Fox and Anna Claire Beitel
Classification N/A; 136 minutes
Opens Feb. 25 in select Canadian theatres, including the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto and Morningside Cinemas in Scarborough, before expanding to other Canadian cities throughout March
Here is a confession that I’m not sure many other writers would be so foolish to put in print: I read the comments posted underneath my stories. Which is how I know that, when I write reviews or features about Canadian film, there are almost always a few readers who feel the need to proclaim that there is no such thing as a Canadian movie worth writing about. It is frustrating, exhausting, sad, but it happens. So here is my absolute best attempt to put that sometimes uninformed, sometimes annoying, always dispiriting opinion to rest: If you have any doubt about the tremendous, inspiring, near-transcendent power that Canadian film can offer, then you must make a priority of watching Scarborough.
The new film is, without risk of hyperbole, one of the most affecting dramas that I watched all last year, from any country. Heartbreaking without being manipulative, compassionate without being overbearing and authentic without being sentimental, Scarborough stands as a shining example of how, when everything lines up just so, our country’s film industry can produce truly powerful works of art that can transform the way that you see the world.
Based on Catherine Hernandez’s 2017 novel of the same name, Scarborough follows three young children from the eponymous east-end Toronto neighbourhood – one blighted for decades by municipal neglect and lurid headlines – over the course of a single school year. There is Bing (Liam Diaz), a shy but big-hearted Filipino boy who is slowly becoming aware of his own sexuality just as his loving mother is spiriting him away from his abusive father. There is Sylvie (Mekiya Fox), a joyful firecracker of a girl whose Indigenous family calls a low-rent motel home, and struggles to find care for Sylvie’s younger autistic brother. And then there is Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), the severely neglected daughter of a drug-addicted mother and woefully incapable, emotionally unstable father.
The families’ lives bump up against one another – not so much intersecting as gently passing, sometimes from a child’s-eye view and sometimes from the vantage point of the exhausted caregivers – at a community centre in the Galloway Road area. The drop-in space is run by Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani), a determined social worker who frequently runs up against the detached incompetence of her downtown bureaucratic supervisor. It is here, the film convincingly argues, where the disconnect between the system’s best intentions and the reality of those who live in its many margins reveals itself.
Ms. Hina’s safe haven – a kind of ground zero where all of the characters’ many low-income plights can come to a dramatically satisfying head – might have come off as an overly convenient device in other filmmakers’ hands. But as envisioned and depicted by Scarborough’s co-directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, and screenwriter Hernandez (who adapts her own novel), the classroom becomes a fixed point of character and narrative calm that anchors lives defined by constant instability.
This same tension – of belonging to a community while worrying about what life in that community might be like the next day – is felt deep in the film’s bones. From Nakhai and Williamson’s decision to shoot in a tremulous, urgent documentary style to their insistence on utilizing as many on-site locations as possible – the Warden subway station gets a particularly devastating cameo – Scarborough honours its setting while delivering an empathetic and unforgettable portrait of a city that is shamefully absent from quote-unquote Toronto cinema.
While this isn’t the first time that Scarborough, as a neighbourhood, has been depicted onscreen – Joyce Wong’s impressive 2016 drama Wexford Plaza highlighted its weathered strip malls and dense apartment blocks, while Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy featured the University of Toronto’s concrete-slab Scarborough campus – it does mark a genuine cinematic inflection point for the community. Sincere in their aesthetics and humble in their intentions, Nakhai and Williamson deliver an engrossing film that soars on the strength of its specificity. And it is all delivered on a microbudget that wouldn’t cover a lunch break on any of the other films considered quintessentially “Toronto.”
All of this isn’t to say that Scarborough is an easy film to watch. Each child goes through tremendously traumatic episodes – including one third-act incident that nearly shattered my spirt – but it is all in the service of telling stories that will awaken you to the lives of others outside your own socioeconomic bubble. This isn’t poverty porn or fly-by-night exploitation – absolutely everything onscreen feels earned, honest, lived-in. And, somehow, crowd-pleasing, too. For a movie centring on abuse, discrimination and societal isolation, Scarborough will leave you with the urge to rise up and applaud.
Crucial to this cinematic alchemy is the work of the film’s young cast: Diaz, Fox and Beitel never feel less than real children caught in untenable situations. Charming and compelling, each performer arrives like a star already past the point of “up-and-coming.” As much as anything else in Scarborough, the three actors are proof that the future – of the neighbourhood, of Canadian film – is bright as you can imagine.