Directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson.
Starring Liam Diaz, Essence Fox, Anna Claire Beitel, Felix Jedi Ingram Isaac, Ellie Posadas, Cherish Violet Blood, Conor Casey, and Aliya Kanani.
Three children become friends while living in a low-income neighborhood.
Filmmakers Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson adapt Catherine Hernandez’s acclaimed 2017 novel Scarborough to the big screen – from a screenplay penned by Hernandez herself – in what’s sure to be one of the most unforgettable and talked-about feature debuts playing at this year’s TIFF.
Scarborough unfolds within the titular inner-city district of Toronto, a neighbourhood where low-income families are largely left to wither amid poverty, drug addiction, and insufficient education and social work resources.
At once epic and intimate, this rich tapestry orbits around a large ensemble cast, though focuses in on three young children and their families in particular; gay Filipino boy Bing (Liam Diaz), who must contend with a mentally ill father; Indigenous girl Sylvie (Essence Fox), who hops from motel-to-motel with her mother and severely autistic brother; and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), a withdrawn, illiterate girl born to drug addicts and now living with her abusive father.
The three children end up meeting one another during a before-school program run by an almost improbably patient, well-tempered teacher, Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani), as both children and parents build crucial support systems and learn to depend emotionally upon one another.
Beyond its touching portrayal of friendship amid enormous adversity, Scarborough is a righteous indictment of a community left to rot by the state, those within it forced to come together for their collective betterment when the wider authorities won’t extend help.
Beyond its under-resourced social instruments – namely jobs, housing, education, drugs counselling and social care – the film touches on a wide gamut of issues, from domestic abuse to bullying, and most prominently racism, prejudice running rampant among the neighbourhood’s diverse ethnic makeup. Despite all this, Nakhai and Williamson’s film mostly avoids the sheen of poverty porn, as even many good movies aren’t entirely able to avoid.
The triptych of intersecting stories – beginning in fall and ending in spring – is dizzyingly presented at first, flashing a montage of clips from each child’s experience before settling down into a less fitful mode. The structure throughout is generally loose, however, shuttlecocking back and forth between characters and even time periods as necessary.
Catherine Hernandez’s ear for naturalistic dialogue does the movie absolute wonders, while the filmmakers demonstrate expert aptitude at working with child actors, guiding them towards shockingly authentic performances. This allows so much of that precious, intangible childhood imagination to transpire through, perhaps most memorably in a scene where Bing and Sylvie play Tic-tac-toe with nail polish bottles.
The directors’ gorgeously intimate roving camerawork adopts a faux-documentary aesthetic, complete with shots that go occasionally out-of-focus. There’s an appealingly unvarnished quality to the visuals, making it feel like 136 minutes worth of stolen, private moments.
The only stylistic trick that doesn’t really work is the slightly goofy inclusion of on-screen e-mails between Ms. Hina and an unsupportive school administrator, which are accompanied by a voiceover that feels like it belongs in a different movie. Robbie Teehan’s musical score meanwhile has an operatic quality to it, but not one that inappropriately overpowers the small-scale character drama.
It’s the cast through-and-through who make Scarborough what it is, though; the wonderfully grounded performances of the three leads in particular feel heartbreakingly lived-in, especially Anna Claire Beitel as the sweet, quiet Laura, whose pained face wears the invisible scars of years of neglect. With any luck, Aliya Kanani, who gives a splendidly empathetic performance as the peppy teacher going above and beyond her station to care for her students, will enjoy a major career boost off the back of her superb work here.
Beyond this, the cast is filled out with countless minor characters who, for all we know are just locals who agreed to appear in the film; they’re certainly never less than completely believable as local “characters” recruited to effectively play themselves.
It is worth informing potential audiences that this film is incredibly upsetting in places, particularly during certain spillovers into violence, and a brutal third-act sting in the tail might ultimately be too grim for some viewers. Though this is countered by a hopeful final message, about small victories in life snowballing into real progress, the overall tenor is one defined as much by sadness as joy or optimism.
Though one could make the case for a few editing nips and tucks, the filmmakers largely earn their extended runtime, co-director-editor Williamson allowing scenes to breathe while also knowing just when to cut to another perspective. Despite its sprawling canvas and all-encompassing consideration of wider societal failures in North America, though, the film soars most when capturing the up-close, everyday struggle of today’s tomorrow.
An upsetting yet empathetic and soulful portrait of a left-behind community struggling to build a better future for its children, Scarborough is an ambitious, mighty feature debut from Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.