Hey, Hey, It's Picture Day!

Picture Day
(Canada, 93 min.)
Written and directed by Kate Melville
Starring: Tatiana Maslany, Spencer Van Wyck, Steven McCarthy, Susan Coyne, Fiona Highet, Nathalie Bailey.
Claire (Tatiana Maslany). Photo by Johnny Vong.
I used to hate Picture Day. Dressing up, posing for the camera, and saying “Cheese!” all seemed like a lot of effort just so your parents could give Grandma the same Christmas present year after year. Whatever happened to fruitcake?

Most of all, though, Picture Day was the annual snapshot of how school was so unbearably awkward. (The worst year was when the photographer insisted that my twin and I pose in the picture together so that our parents could just cut the portrait in half and save money.) Your appearance might change drastically year after year, but the gawkiness felt the same on every Picture Day. (But the Twin Picture Day was double trouble.) Picture Day is sort of like a coming-of-age milestone for high schoolers. No matter how awkward, stupid, and/or pointless Picture Day seemed, you could deal with it a little easier with each one that went by.

Picture Day, Kate Melville’s funny and refreshing feature debut, follows a lost teen named Claire (Tatiana Maslany) who must repeat her Grade 12 year so that her picture can finally be added to winners’ wall along with the other mug shots of her graduating class. Picture Day is a teen set dramedy made with a fine eye for the hilarious awkwardness of growing up. Claire is struggling on her victory lap, but she’s nary a few weeks into school.

Melville gives the audience a taste of Claire’s lack of direction in the film's first introduction to her. Claire is at a local dive, rocking out to the music of a local indie band. The lead singer, Jim (Steven McCarthy), happens to use the ladies’ room for a costume change when Claire’s having a pee. One thing leads to another and she goes home with him. The morning after, though, Jim reveals that he’s in his “Jesus year” (i.e.: he’s 33) and Claire tells him that she’s going to be late for math. Troubled teens make poor life choices.

Too old for high school and too young for reality, Claire seems stuck in that awkward transitional period that makes life a living hell. She sleeps with older men, but the kids at school call her “Twist Off,” which is a term of endearment in the most juvenile/premature sense. Claire seems like an even bigger fish out of water when she finally gets to school. In the hall, she runs into Henry (Spencer Van Wyck), whom she used to babysit in the years before he hit puberty.
Henry is an odder sort than Claire is. Not only does he grow his own pot—under his parents’ noses, no less—he has a Grade-A creeper crush on his former babysitter. Henry has a little shoebox in the alphabetized archive of his closet, which holds all sorts of odd remnants of Claire’s life: bubble gum, panties, photos, and the like. There’s no doll made out of Claire’s hair, but that could be subcategorized under V for “voodoo”. Caught between a young boy and an older man, Claire’s life is split in two, much like that awkward first grade twin shot of my brother and I. Claire, Henry, and Jim are all teetering on the edge of messing up, and Claire’s need for distraction is a catalyst for self-destruction.

Claire is a complex, layered character, so it’s a testament to lead actress Tatiana Maslany that she carries Picture Day without breaking a sweat. Maslany, a star on the rise thanks to early notice for Grown up Movie Star and to recent buzz for the TV series “Orphan Black” (she also appears in Blood Pressure, which is currently in theatres), gives a performance that confirms she is here to stay. Naturally funny and able to convey that blasé teen restlessness with an effortless air, Maslany is a winner as Claire.

One can’t help but want to steer Claire in Molly Maxwell’s direction and let the two girls solve each other’s problems and work out their lives. Dating an older man doesn’t make a girl grow up any sooner, so perhaps the two troubled Torontonians could become friends and provide each other a much-needed outlet. The two girls seem to have lots in common in addition to their fondness for older men: they both like local indie music and they both find a creative outlet for their directionlessness, with Molly taking up photography and Claire playing mentor to Henry.

It’s worth framing Picture Day in reference to Molly Maxwell since both films introduce equally worthy new voices to Toronto’s film scene. Both films hold their own on comparision and it's interesting to see how two different groups of artists approach a similar topic with a unique approach. Although Picture Day and Molly Maxwell are both stories of troubled teen girls involved with older men, the two films couldn’t handle the subjects more differently. Claire’s awkward sexual adventure is her own doing, whereas Molly’s results from some misguided supervision.

Claire also lacks the parental support that saves Molly from absolute abandon. Claire’s relationship with her single mother, Annie (Fiona Highet), is raw and honest: her mom’s life is a wreck, as she sits alone in their small, low-income housing unit waiting for a boyfriend who never seems to come. Annie’s so out of it that she doesn’t even realize the milk’s gone sour until Claire takes a sip. If Claire had the same guidance that Molly had, she wouldn’t be in such a mess. But, then again, neither would Henry and Picture Day is so much the better for seeing both teens struggle to work life out on their own.

Henry lets Claire play the same guardian role of her babysitting days, which makes his infatuation with her doubly creepy and her own lack of maternal guidance even more effective. The proverbial Picture Day of the film comes when Claire convinces Henry to make a major change. His portrait is the perfect snapshot of teen foolishness, as Claire’s attempt to age him only highlights what a boy he is.

Picture Day is a fun, hip movie overall, with Claire’s coming-of-age story playing out in candidly composed scenes in Toronto’s more eclectic corners. Few iconic images of the city find their way into Picture Day’s lens—if they do, they’re fleeting—unless one counts the familiar overhang of Honest Ed’s—you’ll recognize the Annex landmark from Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World—but even then, Ed’s tacky flashing lights aren’t even turned on to brighten Claire’s picture. Melville and her team instead inject the life of the city into the film the way that Claire finds it: through her music. Picture Day includes an excellent playlist of hot acts from Toronto’s indie music scene. (Co-star Steven McCarthy appears with his own band The Elastocitizens.) Picture Day has the Great Gatsby of Canadian indie film soundtracks, expect that Melville and company know what to do with the tunes. You’ll debate pulling out Shazam once or twice during Picture Day, but the playlist is online (with free samples!) in case your fellow moviegoers sass you during the screening.

Picture Day stands out from the class thanks to Melville’s hilariously uncontrived take on the coming-of-age tale. One would never guess that this is her first feature. As Claire waits for her life to develop, and watches her self-image change like the colours of a Polaroid, Picture Day offers not a whiff of self-awareness or precociousness. The film is a hilarious, charming, and energetic feature debut. Viewers won’t be surprised that Melville’s previous credits include a stint with Degrassi: The Next Generation, as Claire reflects the troubled, angsty, but wholly believable teens that make the TV series such an ongoing success.

Picture Day is simply one of the most enjoyable coming-of-age movies in some time. It’s one of the few films to make me appreciate my high school days. Picture Day is also one of the strongest feature debuts this country has seen in a while, which says a lot if one considers the impressive crop of new offerings that have popped up this year. The class photo of 2013 looks even more impressive than the last. Have we passed that awkward stage??? 

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Picture Day opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 24.
*Note: Director Kate Melville and several of the Picture Day cast members will be present at the 7:30 screenings on Friday and Monday for an intro and Q&A!

Picture Day is also available on DVD and VOD in the USA.