starring Isaiah Lehtinen, Krista Bridges, Romina D'Ugo, Percy Hynes White
written and directed by Chandler Levack
by Bill Chambers At the beginning of this pandemic without end, I bought a used camcorder off eBay so that I could digitize the mountains of footage I generated making movies with friends as a teenager. It was a trip down memory lane that confirmed something I'd always suspected and feared: I was a complete tyrant. Make that dick. I was a misfit with control issues stemming from disability, and I was obsessed with movies. Add a video camera to that--at least in the early '90s, when they were still novel--and you get Napoleon. With his black moptop and squat frame, high-schooler Lawrence Kweller (Isaiah Lehtinen) could be a live-action Gene Belcher--but the huge chip on his shoulder and his voluminous clothing sooner bring Ignatius J. Reilly to mind. He's funny in small doses. Certainly the opening scene of film critic Chandler Levack's feature debut I Like Movies is so uncanny I could only laugh. Lawrence and his best friend--his only friend--Matt Macarchuck (Percy Hynes White) have made a silly video for class. The teacher, Mr. Olenick (Anand Rajaram), shuts it off after it fades out, and Lawrence protests that he's skipped the blooper reel and end-credit outtakes. Mr. Olenick asks what their spoof of A Christmas Carol had to do with the assigned topic ("bias in the media"), and Lawrence says, "I just decided I wanted to do something, you know, more personal and from the heart." A classmate, Lauren (Eden Cupid), sticks up for the video by calling it "cute"--a word that only makes Lawrence apoplectic. Everything that comes out of Lawrence's mouth here probably came out of mine during my senior year of English, when I made a movie about Elvis faking his death to hide from Satan and called it a book report on The Great Gatsby.
Whatever surge of foolish pride I felt remembering that curdled with the familiarity of Lawrence's antisocial behaviour beyond the classroom. He overcommits to extracurricular projects. He hectors his mother (Krista Bridges). He hoards Matt to keep him away from his dreamgirl, potential interloper Lauren (I assume Lawrence/Lauren is intentional), at the same time he spitefully refers to Matt as a "placeholder." Reject them before they reject you: a guiltily relatable sentiment, that. Lawrence's father committed suicide and Lawrence has anxiety, leading to panic attacks and trichotillomania; it invites sympathy, or at least a degree of mercy, but it doesn't explain Lawrence. Lawrence explains Lawrence. He's a hot mess. I don't know to what extent Lehtinen is playing himself, but it's a performance that feels transparent, and no amount of sentimental claptrap can quite housebreak him. Probably because Levack wanted to set part of it in a video store ("VHS Forever" is the name of the film's production company), I Like Movies takes place in 2003. Pre-smartphone, in other words, which winds up being a wise decision, since pocket cameras have mass-enabled teen filmmakers. They're the normies now, practically jocks in their competition for clicks. I think I Like Movies errs in not giving Lawrence a camera of his own (he borrows Matt's), considering that's a big part of the pathology. The camera is a magnet that attracts people--and problems.
Lawrence miraculously scores a job at Sequels Video, his favourite haunt. His boss, Alana (Romina D'Ugo, poised for big things), is a former actress who's boomeranged back from Los Angeles to find herself living at home and managing this Mock-buster. As Lawrence begins to grow distant from Matt and closer to Alana, the film stops being The Dirties-lite and adopts the shape of Ghost World, albeit with the gender roles reversed. Too, Alana's interest in Lawrence remains strictly platonic. She takes pity on this kid whose career aspirations are somewhat in her wheelhouse. Alana shares a difficult secret with Lawrence about her time in Hollywood; she wants to de-romanticize his image of the film industry and maybe instill some empathy for women in him while he's impressionable. But Lawrence doesn't know what to do with her confession of trauma because he's never considered anybody else's feelings, and then Alana hates herself because she realizes the obscene truth: that on some level, she seeks this homunculus's approval. That's a stunning moment, and I loved both the innovation of telling a mentor story with a boy as a woman's protégé and this acknowledgement of how the patriarchy creates these absurd power imbalances. What I didn't love is all the mismatched eyelines that give the film away as a directorial debut (learn the 180-degree rule, kids); the spartan production design of Sequels, which seems to have raided Robert Lantos's rec room for its wall art; or the contrived, Cinema Paradiso redemption of Lawrence, which actually just makes us realize how little we know about his tastes, his affection for Punch-Drunk Love notwithstanding. (Consequently, the movie comes off as self-impressed with its fake high-school productions.) I like I Like Movies, though. How could I not? Programmes: Discovery, TIFF Next Wave Selects