TIFF 101: way to score with Canuck comedy

Brian D. Johnson assess the Canadian landscape at Toronto’s international festival

A scene from TIFF’s opening night gala, ‘Score: A Hockey Musical’

Cinephiles, start your engines. Today the madness of TIFF begins but I’ve been preparing for weeks, pre-screening films and loading my Blackberry calender with interview slots. Most of the heavy action is packed into the first few days, so you end up juggling impossible choices. Amid the wall-to-wall schedule, I’ll try to keep up with it all in BDJ Unscreened. But this year, I’m also wearing another hat at TIFF. I’ve produced and directed a film that’s in the festival, a 7-minute Bravo!FACT short called Yesno, which is premiering Sept. 12. (Now a brief pause for a blast of shameless self promotion.) My little film is a mix of live action and animation based on a book of  poetry by Dennis Lee (Alligator Pie), which is voiced by other poets, including Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Karen Solie. I’ve been asked more than once if I’m going to review it myself. Uh . . . no. But I have launched a new website for my moonlighting endeavours behind the camera: bdjfilms.com. OK, enough about me. On to the main event . . .

TIFF opens tonight with the premiere of Michael McGowan’s Score: A Hockey Musical, the first of five opening night galas at film festivals across the country. Clearly there’s widespread consensus that this is right movie at the right time, an alleged crowd-pleaser that tries to hitch our struggling national cinema to our blockbuster national sport. Whether it will indeed please the crowd, I can’t predict. But after seeing the movie at a press screening, a few things seem clear. The notion of a hockey musical is both ingenious and outrageous, and much of the film’s charm lies in the sheer showbiz bravado of the concept, a bravado that’s embodied by the central character—a home-schooled 17-year-old pacifist nerd named Farley (Noah Reid), who graduates from shinny to national stardom as the Next Great One, while mortifying hockey fans by his refusal to defend his honour on the ice with his fists. Score is a meta movie, one that celebrates the fact of its own existence, wearing its post-modern concept like a team emblem. At its heart a terrific  performance by Noah Reid. Not only can he skate and act; when he sings, he sounds like a young Paul Simon. And with an all-star roster of Canadian talent helping compose the songs, there are some good riffs to work with. But this is one hokey hockey movie. The cornball dialogue often falls flat, and story goes way offside with a third-period shortcut that defies logic. Which is too bad. Because the script’s cavalier tone undermines a heartfelt conviction in Reid’s performance and in that of his young leading lady, Allie MacDonald. Even when a musical aims for outlandish farce, when hockey and young romance are in play, to engage emotionally, you still have to believe what’s happening.

Although Score invents its own zany genre, it belongs to a certain breed of parochial  Canadian movies that have a populist appeal not designed to travel beyond our borders—movies like Men With Brooms, Passchendaele, Bon Cop, Bad Cop and McGowan’s own One Week. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; Quebec has built a thriving film industry on movies geared to a Quebec audience. But insofar as film is a universal medium, no matter how specific the references, you’d like to think that a Canadian movie would go beyond that vintage CBC mandate, of reflecting Canada to Canadians. And and English Canada, unlike Quebec, has never really displayed a large popular appetite for its own cinema. So making films for a domestic audience would seem to be a losing proposition.

There are, however, other styles of Canadian comedy at TIFF this year that may travel more successfully.  Opening the Midnight Madness program is Michael Dowse’s Fubar II, a sequel to his cult hit Fubar. I found it hilarious. Just when you thought that the hoser comedy had nowhere left to go, Fubar II cranks it up to 11, with a profane farce that takes headbanger heroes Dean (Paul Spence) and Terry (Dave Lawrence) to the winter wilds of Fort McMurray. No matter how antic and goofy the gags, what makes this film work is strength of the story, and the sweet dose of sentiment that waylays us in the third act. Although the references are all ridiculously Canadian, ‘hoser’ is really an international language, and one can imagine this farce finding an eager cult audience outside the country.

Yet another genre of Canadian comedy is on display in Daydream Nation, a feature debut by Michael Goldbach that opens TIFF’s Canada First series. Set in a small, bleak town, it’s among a glut of Canadian features premiering at TIFF that enlist American names to add some marquee value. Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) stars as a disaffected teenager who decides to break the boredom by seducing her English teacher (Josh Lucas)—making her intentions clear with an essay championing Monica Lewinsky as a role model (and explainng that Monica’s mistake was getting caught). A hybrid of comedy and drama, this style-conscious coming-of-age story is a mash-up of themes familiar from other films, from American Beauty to Heathers, but its strongest asset is its star. After Defendor, this is Dennings’ second outing in a Canadian film. And at this rate, the true north may turn into the new frontier of American indie cinema. Without knowing, you might not even identify Daydream Nation as a Canadian movie. Then again, that undefended landscape of teenage wasteland has a nationality all its own.

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