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Sergiy Kotelenets in Victoria Day, a David Bezmogis film.

Annabel Reyes. 2007

3 out of 4 stars


Victoria Day

  • Written and directed by David Bezmozgis
  • Starring Mark Rendall and Holly Deveaux
  • Classification: 14A

There is something of the charming first novel to Victoria Day : It's a small film focused on a teenage passage. It is intensely well observed, but somewhat lacking in drama. It is lightly nostalgic about its moment in history. It's probably autobiographical. And it doesn't have much of an ending.

No surprise then that this is a film with strong links to literary fiction. Not to a novel, as it happens, but a collection of short stories. Victoria Day is a first feature from David Bezmozgis, author of the critically acclaimed Natasha and Other Stories . A coming-of-age tale set in similar territory, immigrant Toronto of the 1980s, all the film lacks is the Jewish identity that is so central to the book. Here, the immigrants are simply Russian, not the Jewish refuseniks of Natasha .

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The action is set very visibly in North York and less visibly in 1988. There are lots of recognizable suburban Toronto streets and urban landmarks in the film, including Ontario Place, and some gentle references to the music of the day, but none of the arch costuming and booming tunes that typify the usual teen-nostalgia flick.

Ben (Mark Rendall) is doing well in high school. He's the kind of well-liked achiever who gets to read the morning announcements, which he always ends with his favourite Bob Dylan song, his retro taste providing a small marker of his status as an observant outsider. He is smart, he has two good buddies, and he plays hockey for the school team well enough that his father, a Russian massage therapist, hopes he will win a scholarship to an American university.

The obnoxious Jordan, on the other hand, is obviously headed for trouble. At a Dylan concert, Ben reluctantly lends him the extra $5 he needs to buy drugs. The next day, Jordan has disappeared. Ben joins the search for the missing youth, which allows him to pursue his burgeoning friendship with Jordan's sensitive sister (Holly Deveaux). Meanwhile, at home, he and his father watch the Edmonton Oilers compete for the Stanley Cup in the series that included the infamous game during which fog rose off the ice to envelope the Boston Garden before a power outage stopped play.

Footage of that game, and scenes of North York's split-level houses and leafy parks effectively anchor this film in a time and place, making its delicate observations of teenage life ring true as Ben and his friends negotiate the transition from fondling fireworks to fondling breasts. There's a telling moment when Ben winds up in hospital after some Victoria Day high jinks go wrong. Coming to pick him up, his mother takes one look at the war paint on his friends' faces and angrily dismisses them as little boys still playing at being soldiers. As she and his father see it, their son's future depends on playing hockey like a man.

There is fine work here from Nataliya Alyexeyenko and Sergiy Kotelenets as Ben's Russian parents, and a quietly sympathetic view of adolescent confusion offered by Rendall and Deveaux. What's missing is a larger dramatic frame into which Bezmozgis can place the finely crafted details. For example, he leaves the ending purposely obscure. The lack of climax may be true to the inconclusiveness of that moment in life before careers are set and partners picked but, at a dramatic level, it does a disservice to his observations, failing to drive them home with emotional firepower.

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