Low Self-Esteem Girl
starring Corrina Hammond, Ted Dave, James Dawes, Rob McBeth
written and directed by Blaine Thurier
Guys want her body.
Zealots want her soul.
-Low Self Esteem Girl's honest tagline
by Bill Chambers A few minutes into Low Self Esteem Girl, I got the distinct feeling I was watching an episode of "Candid Camera" in which the recording device itself, and not the camera's subjects, was the one being had. First-time director Blaine Thurier, a former cartoonist for Vancouver's TERMINAL CITY, zigzags his digital video camera about the house of Lois (Corrina Hammond) like a spy who has unwittingly stumbled upon a stage exercise: Lois and Gregg (Ted Dave), her one-night stand, conduct a pillow-fight with overtones of rape, and then she offers him a beer--at which point I half-expected a drama teacher to call time-out, step into the frame, and critique their performances.
The problem with most non-professional actors is that they're introverted, yet Thurier, who's also the keyboardist for The New Pornographers, loaded Low Self Esteem Girl's cast with seasoned indie rockers, so his cast is used to putting on some kind of show and creating a spectacle. This inevitably leads to as much "Dogma95"-posturing in front of as behind the camera. But considering how many Canadian productions are cerebral to the point of somnambulant, Low Self Esteem Girl feels like a breath of fresh air. Dismissing or condemning the film for its source of power (i.e., obvious nods in the direction of Cassavetes's Faces and A Woman Under the Influence that pave the way for more organic improvisation and experimentation) would be counter-productive and unreasonably spiteful, principally because I got such a charge out of it.
The movie starts making a real impact after that opening sequence. The aforementioned Gregg is a habitually unpunctual pot dealer who winds up selling Lois's address and the words key to seducing her to his best client, Garth (James Dawes), thereby discovering a side hustle. Meanwhile, Lois enters into a "nice" relationship with Rob (Rob McBeth), a born-again urged by Carl (Carl Newman, uncannily believable until the screenplay betrays him), the leader of his youth group, to weave her into their denomination. In an effort to please everybody--she herself last--Lois opens her mind to Christian teachings ("So you have a crush on Jesus?") and continues to sleep around. The movie isn't called High Self Esteem Girl, after all.
In my recent "Perspective Canada Line-Up" article, I theorized from a one-sentence synopsis of this electric film that it is "one of those self-consciously daring, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink comedies young Canucks are famous for." Now, having actually experienced it, I find that "self-consciously daring" best describes that logline; if the suggestion that finding God might not be the end-all/be-all offends, well, it's always bound to offend. For the film to be truly audacious it would have to side with the Christians, portrayed here as passive-aggressives (emphasis on aggressive) steeped in pop doctrine. (All the more surprising that it doesn't, given that Thurier and Newman once fronted a Christian alt-folk band.) In Carl's eagerness to hold an exorcism, Thurier reveals his roots as a comic-strip artist, reducing the young pastor's ideals to word balloons and broad satire, and Low Self Esteem Girl goes off the rails. It's never a trainwreck, though, thanks to the truthful reactions of those affected by church hostility. There's real sadness in Lois's conversion of faith--all she really gains from it is a guilt complex, which doesn't make anyone a 'better' person per se--and her pain is mirrored by the confused Rob's eventual rebellion against organized religion through hard partying.
I described Low Self Esteem Girl to a friend as "depressing comedy," in that we laugh on the outside as we continue to fall deeper and deeper into a funk. There is almost always a point to it, however. (I'm thinking back to how easily two of its Christian characters cave into temptation--young people need to be hedonists.) More often than not, the film smacks of life and reflection; Thurier astutely observes these streets on the fringes of suburbia, where jobless twentysomethings partake in a junkie-chic sense of community. (I recognized the milieu instantly as that of my friends, even if our Toronto is not Thurier's Vancouver.) Rarely does Canadian cinema sanction this much naked empathy--or come in for as many close-ups as Thurier does! The home-video aesthetic somehow endears it even further, like a spunky class project, although I anxiously await the renaissance of the tripod. Originally published: September 3, 2000.