starring Liam Diaz, Essence Fox, Anna Claire Beitel, Felix Jedi Ingram Isaac
screenplay by Catherine Hernandez, based on her novel
directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson
by Angelo Muredda "You're a good boy," a mother whispers to her bullied preteen son Bing (Liam Diaz) while he sleeps early on in Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson's Scarborough, a reverent and rambling adaptation of Catherine Hernandez's buzzy Canadian novel of the same name. While Bing may well need the affirmation in the grips of his abuse at the hands of classmates, it largely underlines one of the festival darling's more nagging qualities: a tendency to annotate all its emotional beats. An ostentatiously literary cousin to cloying ensemble family dramas like "This Is Us", given texture mostly by its notes of regional specificity and trio of unaffected child performances, Scarborough goes out of its way to chart the relative goodness of its characters whenever possible, as though its filmmakers think we might not arrive at the right conclusions without moralizing notes.
Nakhai and Williamson bring a welcome note of documentary realism to the movie, set in a suburb rarely glimpsed in the Toronto-on-film canon, save for Jake Gyllenhaal's confused history classrooms in Enemy. For the most part, they situate the drama within the quintessentially Scarborough strip malls, cramped apartments, and literacy centres its characters move through without aestheticizing their poverty. Nor do they resort to having them fantasize their escape from it as in more mawkish coming-of-age dramas about children in low-income homes and racialized communities. But the filmmakers' low-key approach is at odds with their over-reliance on dialogue from the novel, which spills out in stilted exchanges, as well as with the source text's lyricism, which is not adapted so much as transferred to the film in a series of images and moments that spectators familiar with the novel are meant to nod at approvingly. Seemingly observational vignettes where we see customers at a nail salon bombard employees with their life stories, for instance, come off as highly-scripted windows into Scarborough life--not polyphonic recordings of the place's many voices, as intended, but monologic commentary from the author. One recurring subplot, where Muslim community-centre coordinator Hina (Aliya Kanani) processes a passive-aggressive email chain with her incompetent and racist white supervisor (typed out onscreen and narrated in their respective voices), feels particularly vestigial. Formally out of place, didactic, and incidental to the main narrative, it exists strictly to show us what a saintly worker like Hina--who spends much of her time here teaching a white child of a violent white supremacist how to read--is up against.
That Scarborough's politics are on the side of good doesn't make these moments any less clunky. That it's still relatively engaging and tender in spite of these structural hiccups is mostly thanks to its unpretentious and guileless child performers, particularly Diaz and, as Bing's only friend Sylvie and one of the core trinity, Essence Fox, who feel real even when the narrative around them is at its most mechanical. PROGRAMME: DISCOVERY