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  • Directed by Charles Officer
  • Written by Charles Officer and Ingrid Veninger
  • Starring Clark Johnson, Karen LeBlanc and Daniel J. Gordon
  • Classification: 14A

There's a sense of unexpected ambition, including a visual style that might be characterized as budget-lush, in Charles Officer's debut film, Nurse.Fighter.Boy. This risky, rewarding drama, produced through the Canadian Film Centre, blends emotional naturalism with a formal style in the story of its three titular characters - a young Jamaican-Canadian mother with sickle-cell anemia, an ex-boxer looking for a human connection and a 12-year-old boy.

On a literal level, the story, co-written by Officer and Ingrid Veninger, is about an immigrant family in Toronto finding the means to cope with crisis, but it's also an unavoidably metaphoric depiction of a boy's transition from mother-centred world of childhood to the grown-up world of men.

The nurse is named Jude (Karen LeBlanc), after the patron saint of desperate cases, a single mother suffering from a life-threatening hereditary blood disease most commonly associated with people of African descent. Her 12-year-old son, Ciel (Daniel J. Gordon), is an aspiring magician and music lover who serves as his mother's child, caregiver and emotional crutch. The fighter, named Silence (Clark Johnson), is a middle-aged boxer who comes into their lives and finds both a sense of purpose and responsibility.

Names like Jude, Silence and Ciel (French for heaven) are all real if uncommon given names, but they're also clues to characters as allegorical figures of healing, courage and hope.

The plot is almost perfunctory: Silence, an emotionally isolated man with a shaved head and spray of white stubble in his beard, helps run a boxing gym by day and moonlights as a brawler against younger fighters in illegal late-night slugfests. One summer night, he takes a cut to the head and shows up in the emergency ward, where Jude stitches him up. They feel an emotional connection, but she's wary of pursuing it until circumstances change. Meanwhile, Ciel, taunted as a mama's boy by the neighbourhood brats, needs to learn how to defend himself. Silence's interest in helping is honest, and his help is needed.

Officer's approach is refreshingly eccentric. Typically overlit and closely framed, the shots are filled with colour-saturated yellows, reds and blues, and melting montages; almost everything is accompanied by a rhythm-oriented soundtrack.

Contrasting with the different colour schemes associated with different milieus (gym, hospital, home), there are lovely free-wheeling shots of bicycle trips through Toronto's downtown alleys that cast a fresh eye on the city. And as the film progresses, instead of dramatic fireworks, there are moments of pop-up inspiration reminiscent of Lars von Trier at his most precious and startling - a trio of Jamaican angels singing a spiritual, a character who suddenly pops up in the midst of an azure sea.

All three actors have charisma to spare, but Johnson is particularly good. The director and cast member of such landmark American cop series as Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, he captures an understated macho tenderness. Without the benefit of much backstory, he suggests a man whose sense of wisdom has been gained from a lifetime of familiarity with its opposite.

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