Grown Up Movie Star is a story of frustration and abandonment in an isolated, hopeless community, with a pair of teenage sisters virtually deserted by their mother and raised by their reluctant father. While the substance is hardly a revelation, the film’s circumstances are: It marks one of the strongest offerings to emerge from the small island province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
In the pantheon of Canadian cinema, the onscreen realization of Newfoundland and Labrador, the little island off the Atlantic, has been a long time coming. The province is known for its curious culture—a mishmash of Irish ancestry and tragic histories you come to expect from an isolated culture built around the fickle Atlantic Ocean. Much of Newfoundland’s cinema to date has suffered under the burden of translating that unique culture to the screen so that it enhanced, rather than overpowered the storytelling. Recent ventures such as 2006’s Young Triffie’s Been Made Away With have been felled by largely esoteric storytelling and mannered presentation. Thus, the cinema of the province has never quite surfaced to the kind of universal story necessary to find much appeal outside the province’s borders.
Similar in subject matter to recent UK release Fish Tank, Grown Up Movie Star takes a divergent detour in style. It’s clear from the first frame that this is not merely a story of a dysfunctional family, but rather an exploration of the gradual, two-sided realization inside these families: that its members, rather than stock characters or warring factions, are people with complicated and often conflicting needs.
The girls’ parents barely qualify for the title: The mother, Lillian (Sherry White) is a slipshod caregiver consumed by thoughts of her own squandered dreams, while the father (Big Love’s Shawn Doyle) is a disgraced hockey player who celebrates his 42nd birthday by stealing and torching a car. The setting—a typical provincial small town that amounts to a pinpoint on the map—is beautifully incidental, and the details of the landscape are cherry-picked only to suit the narrative. So many films from the province seem more than happy to focus on the vast and haunted scenes of nature, as if these simple ingredients can explain the motives and ennui of the characters. It’s inefficient shorthand at best, and Grown Up Movie Star wisely puts more weight on the afflictions that haunt all small towns: narrow minded neighbors, wasted potential and bored misbehavior.
Much has been made of the sterling performance given here by Tatiana Maslany, who took the award for breakout star at the Sundance Film Festival. As Ruby, she pinpoints the terrific neuroses of being not just a teenager, but a young girl. She pushes and plays with adult men, toying with their authority over her person and testing the waters of her burgeoning sexual power with nervous, indulgent abandon. There’s a thin edge of childish cruelty to her role-playing: She courts a would-be suitor by implying that she’s screwed up, possibly through childhood molestation, only to brush the comment aside seconds later with cryptic levity.
Writer/director Adrianna Maggs refuses to turn the camera away when things get too uncomfortable, notably in a handful of scenes between Ruby and her de facto “Uncle” Stuart (played fearlessly by Newfoundland-native Jonny Harris). As the afterthought of the family, youngest daughter Rose (Julia Kennedy) is at the periphery of the family’s angst, but her behavior hints at playing Follow the Leader with her older sister’s oversexed example.
The result is a ferocious narrative that slips back and forth between melodrama and blunt realism, perhaps relying too readily on the forgiving nature of a family’s bond. Maggs, in her haste to heal these wounded characters, may have put too tidy a bow on dire circumstances, and more than one plotline seems rushed to an artificial close, without earning an emotional satisfaction. But within a cinema struggling to find its footing among its much older cousins, Grown Up Movie Star is a noble addition, and hopefully a predictor of what to expect from the province’s talent.
Jillian Butler is a writer and film critic living in downtown St. John’s. Her blog, Ampersandology, dissects the connections between film and culture, which is also the focus of her upcoming graduate studies.