The insults are flying across the pool room, but this time no one's worrying about teen violence. They're just two kids ragging on each other.
"I'm like 50 pounds heavier than you are," says Jonathan Wamback, his menacing tone undercut by a big grin.
"Yeah, but I'm way better-looking," answers Tyler Hynes.
Jonathan's conceding nothing as he picks up a handy pool cue and sinks a ball on his first shot -- pretty good for a teenager who spent 2½ months in a coma after a savage beating by a suburban Toronto high-school gang and was never expected to walk again.
"Hey, Jon sank a ball," says Tyler, who plays Jonathan in Tagged: The Jonathan Wamback Story, the TV movie that chronicles the 18-year-old's ordeal and remarkable two-year rehabilitation. "The black ball."
"I'm going to keep bugging him forever," Tyler confides in a loud voice, and this time Jonathan offers no retort. He just walks over to his antagonist, a little unsteadily, and smiles.
Jonathan smiles a lot, which is not what you might expect from a young man who still carries the scars of senseless suburban-gangsta violence.
"The assault affected the smiling part of my brain," he says in precise, halting tones. "For a while, I used to laugh at everything."
That may be true. But there's no question among the adoring cast and crew of Tagged that Jonathan has a wicked sense of humour, which is made even more effective by his slow, methodical speech. And, let's face it, by his vulnerable, sympathetic state. You never see the diss coming.
He's holding forth at a table near the back of a café, talking about his complicated attitude toward the 1999 assault. "In the filming, I tried to avoid watching the fight scene," he admits. "When it comes on television, I'll probably leave the room. It's not that it's tough to watch. It's just that I don't want to repeat it."
He pauses. No one interrupts. "But I'm not trying to move away from it. I feel it's a lifetime experience for better and for worse. I've met so many good people. The world is full of excellent people. And the world is full of crappy people. At my school, some people give me dirty looks because I walk differently, and they'll say 'Don't fall, don't trip, keep moving.' "
Tyler can't stand it. "I wouldn't mind going to school with him. I'd kick anyone's ass who said anything."
Jonathan turns round and looks at his friend appraisingly. This is the comrade who shares his love of PlayStation Street Basketball, the guy who mastered his limp in just two days so that he could recreate Jonathan's first day back at school in an anguished seven-minute take. Jonathan puts his fingers on Tyler's modest biceps and gives them a squeeze. "Yeah, right," he says dismissively.
Righting wrongs isn't as easy in real life as on the set. Movies of the week have a long history of exploiting and sentimentalizing personal tragedy, turning gross injustice into a cause that can put things right in time for the inevitable closure as the credits run. But the pat formula doesn't work so well with Jonathan Wamback's story.
Partly it's that he himself resists sentimentalizing. Tagged has picked up on his no-nonsense side well: When the stubborn Jonathan coolly bets one of his fellow rehab inmates that he can get up and walk across the room, his friend's natural response is a companionable, "Bite me."
But just as important, despite Jonathan's unrelenting struggle to recover, which ends up supplying the feel-good element to Tagged, this is not a story with an entirely happy ending. His attackers, who enjoy the protection of the Young Offenders Act, are still free, awaiting an appeal that could reduce their one-year sentence for aggravated assault.
"There's no such thing as catharsis or closure in this story," says Joe Wamback, Jonathan's father. "People have been saying to us, 'Isn't the movie going to open up old wounds?' Well the great news is, the wounds never healed. We live with them every day.' "
For Joe, a builder, this has meant a non-stop campaign against the lenient treatment of violent young offenders, his barely repressed anger effectively counterbalancing his son's apparent serenity. His wife Lozanne, a fitness trainer, is much more detached from the events that turned their life into a movie. "I can honestly say, I don't think about it any more." She channels her energy into helping other victims of violence such as Olga Baranovski, a Ukrainian immigrant whose 15-year-old son was beaten to death in a Toronto park in 1999.
This lack of resolution at least has artistic appeal. Director John L'Ecuyer found it easier to resist making a conventional movie-of-the-week, and has looked for his antecedents in more layered and ambiguous films about disability such as My Left Foot, What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Rain Man. When he came to shoot the attack on Jonathan, he decided to shift the focus away from the easy violence that is used to tantalize conventional movie-of-the-week fans.
"It's not graphic, it's visceral," he maintains. "It's about how badly it hurt to get kicked in the head as opposed to being kicked in the head."
Forgive Jonathan, all the same, if he doesn't watch with an eye for the art. It's true that he treasures the police photograph of his injuries as a keepsake -- "It's the best picture of me ever," he says with incomprehensible teenage-boy enthusiasm. "It's all blood and pus." But his focus is on the new directions, for better and for worse, that his life has been taking since the attack turned everything before into a false start.
"I used to be a golfaholic," he says in his slow, measured voice, "I was out on the course from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. I miss being able to get out every summer. Now I read a lot. I'm writing my autobiography . . ." ("It's damn good," adds Tyler, still standing up for his pal.) ". . . and I hang out with my friends," continues Jonathan. "All my friends from before aren't my friends any more. They're too insensitive. I like people who see me and know me for who I am, not who I was."
He suddenly looks at the pen racing across the notebook, trying to keep pace with his limping words. The incongruity delights him. "Sorry," he says with that constant smile. "Am I going too fast?" Tagged: The Jonathan Wamback Story airs tonight on CTV at 8 p.m.