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June Laporte as Marike and Anwen O’Driscoll as Jaime in You Can Live Forever.Gayle Ye/Mongrel Media

You Can Live Forever

Written and directed by Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky

Starring Anwen O’Driscoll, June Laporte and Liane Balaban

Classification N/A; 96 minutes

Opens in Toronto and Vancouver on March 24; Montreal on March 31

It is a small wonder why there are so many films about high-school heartache, given how instinctively adults tend to bury such memories. Yet we – filmmakers, and audiences – keep on revisiting adolescence, perhaps in the hopes of discovering that things weren’t as bad as we might remember them, or realizing that we can apply the mistakes of our youth to rectify all the days yet to come.

I’m not sure either of those approaches above are what sparked the Canadian writing and directing team of Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky to make You Can Live Forever, though I can appreciate how wrenching the process might have been all the same. A queer coming-of-age romance set against a backdrop of rigid puritanism, the film is steeped in longing and desperation for a love just out of reach. Yet for all its aches and pains, the heart of You Can Live Forever doesn’t so much beat as skip, haltingly and disconcertingly, as it tries to keep its own lifeblood pumping.

Set in the early 1990s, the film follows teenage misfit Jaime (Anwen O’Driscoll), who is sent to live with her aunt Beth (Liane Balaban) in Quebec’s Saguenay region after her father dies and her mother suffers a nervous breakdown. Considering the circumstances, Jaime seems to adjust to her new life well enough, especially given that Beth and her husband Jean-Francois (Antoine Yared) are members of a tight-knit Jehovah’s Witness community that seems to have an intense hold on the area.

Forced to trade her Sega Genesis games for interminable church meetings, Jaime keeps to herself with good humour, counting the days until she can be reunited with her mother in Thunder Bay. But then she catches the eye of Marike (June Laporte), whose family attends the same service as her aunt and uncle, and a discrete affection begins to bloom. As the two navigate the treacherous path of going from friends to something more, they are also forced to balance their desires with the watchful, concerned eyes of their family members, including Marike’s suspicious and attuned sister Amanda (Deragh Campbell).

There is an impressive level of detail – and refreshing lack of condemnation or moral grandstanding – in the film’s depiction of a Jehovah’s Witness community. While Jaime and Marike’s families’ disapproving attitudes threaten to crush the pair, Watts and Slutsky are careful to avoid painting the faithful as callous, cold villains. There is a through-line of backward happiness shot through this tear-jerking affair – everyone, ultimately, just wants what they believe is best for the other, even if some have their perspectives blinded by an unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to look beyond everything that they know to be true. (The empathetic script is likely the result of Watts having herself grown up gay in a Jehovah’s Witness community, though the filmmakers are careful to point out in interviews and press materials that You Can Live Forever is a fiction.)

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There is a shakiness to the pacing and storytelling that regularly upsets the movie’s romance..Gayle Ye/Mongrel Media

The performances are exceptional across the cast, with Laporte and O’Driscoll well paired – there is a real chemistry between the two that gives the film a prickling jolt of authenticity. And Campbell, in a small but memorable supporting role, leaves a cold-eyed impression that chills.

Yet there is a shakiness to the pacing and storytelling that regularly upsets the movie’s romance. The narrative beats simply arrive too fast during the film’s first half – almost as if there was a short-story prologue that audiences were intended to have watched beforehand – before everything slows to a crawl as tragedy inevitably worms its way into Jaime and Marike’s relationship.

Similarly awkward is the film’s intended period setting, which seems neglected thanks to either a lack of resources or an inattention to production-design detail. While the soundtrack does a lot of heavy lifting on this front – sincere congratulations to the filmmakers for scoring rights to the Cocteau Twins and the Breeders – most everything else, including the contemporary dialogue, feels firmly rooted in 2022.

As a debut feature, though, You Can Live Forever shows great promise for Watts and Slutsky. So much so that perhaps one day they will be given the keys to the Canadian film kingdom.

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