TIFF Review: 'Weirdos'

(Canada, 89 min.)
Dir. Bruce McDonald, Writ. Daniel MacIvor
Starring: Dylan Authors, Julia Sarah Stone, Molly Parker, Allan Hawco
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
The Canuck director with the iconic cowboy hat goes down the road once again. It’s been a while since Bruce McDonald delivered a road trip, especially since his earlier works Roadkill, Highway 61, and Hard Core Logo established his voice with aimless Canadians riding the dream that life was better elsewhere. The road movie, though, is where McDonald really excels. He’s back in the driver’s seat with his new pic Weirdos and it’s easily his strongest film since 2010’s Trigger. Weirdos is one of the best and most surprising films of McDonald’s career.

The journey in Weirdos begins in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, 1976, where the movie theatre screens American garbage like Mother, Jugs & Speed and every television set is tuned in to celebrations of the USA’s bicentennial. The destination is Sydney, which is still in Nova Scotia, but a world apart to Kit (Dylan Authors), a reserved fifteen-year-old boy with fancy shoes and a girlfriend named Alice (Julia Sarah Stone) who also itches to get the fuck out of dodge. Kit also travels with a spirit animal of Andy Warhol (Rhys Bevan-John)—or, actually, an imaginary dude in a wig who looks and sounds like Andy Warhol—who acts as his guide and guardian angel. Kit is a weirdo deep down to his bones.

As Kit struts away from his home in his snazzy shoes to some rambling guitar riffs, Weirdos begins with hints of Midnight Cowboy and Goin’ Down the Road. Those classic films are tragedies, though, and despite the stark cinematography—Weirdos is shot in gorgeously retro black and white by Becky Parsons—this film is refreshingly optimistic. Who knew that Canada’s coolest filmmaker has such a sweet spot?

Weirdos avoids easy cynicism as Kit and Alice hitchhike the 200 kilometres (ish) from Antigonish to Sydney and stretch their relationship along an equally long journey. Alice is a little angsty as she eagerly awaits “goodbye sex” while Kit harbours other interests, but she shares her boyfriend’s youthful innocence. Slade is every bit a revelation here as she was in her breakout performance in Wet Bum, as Alice and Kit move further and further and she asks question upon question, assuming the role of inquisitor instead of the wise-cracking scoffer.

The couple confronts the imperfections of their relationship as fellow travellers add fresh dynamics and new temptations. Weirdos could easily be one of those offbeat road movies that trucks in a cavalcade of eccentric characters who jibber-jabber all sorts Sundance-y nonsense and phoney-baloney insight, but the down-to-earth and insightful screenplay by Daniel MacIvor (Trigger) offers characters who are real, raw, and peculiar in their own particular way. What makes the film so honest is the authenticity and understated complexity of the characters. They’re flawed and complicated, but not overtly so. (Well, one is, but we’ll get to her in a minute.) Everyone feels grounded in reality, pulled from the small towns and the big cities of Canada with relatable and refreshingly humane shortcomings.

Weirdos takes a surprising turn in its third act when Kit and Alice arrive at their destination. Enter Kit’s mother, Laura (Molly Parker), with whom he is estranged. She’s an obvious mess of complicated mania from the moment the camera sets eyes on Parker. The House of Cards stars immediately absorbs all the attention of the lens as Laura stands in a tattered white gown—possibly even her wedding dress—within a brightly lit garden that sparkles in the film’s greyscale palette. It’s only lunch time, but Laura has a Manhattan on the go as she dances freestyle in the yard like Miss Havisham’s bohemian sister. Overjoyed at the return of her son, she invites them in for sandwiches, stories of Andy Warhol, and glasses filled to the brim with brown liquor as Parker commands the screen with unprecedented confidence in her already impressive career.

Parker owns the final act of Weirdos. Laura is the trickiest weirdo of the film, but Parker takes the drama to its deepest and most unexpected places. She brings rapid-fire shifts of highs and lows as she reveals a manic-depressive woman bursting with life, love, and energy. Parker conveys every undulation in Laura’s spirit, conveying her euphoria with a spirited and effervescent monologue about the good old days about partying with Andy Warhol in Toronto. She reveals the depths of her character’s depression as Laura painfully realises just how out of control her behaviour is. It’s a rich, dynamic, and, above all, sensitive portrayal of mental illness. This work ranks among the best work of Parker’s career and it’s hard to imagine another performance at the festival matching her dexterity.

For all of Parker’s energy and sheer magnetism, McDonald’s film never forgets that Weirdos is ultimately the story of two young adults finding their place in the world. Laura’s desperate cry for help puts Kit and Alice’s own idiosyncrasies into perspective as the film builds a coming of age tale about embracing the differences that unite people rather than drive them apart.

Even Andy Warhol gives a speech about how much he loves Canada’s quaintness and simplicity, which is symbolised in the offbeat choice of a bight red leaf as our national emblem. (What kinds of weirdos celebrate a leaf?) Set just a stone’s throw from Marion Bridge, MacIvor’s screenplay offers a ripe and tangible sense of place, while McDonald’s direction harnesses the freeing power of the road along Kit and Alice’s journey. The film is one of McDonald’s most unabashedly Canadian films yet as the eclectic aura of the Maritime landscape evokes a nation of weirdos. The film owns Canada’s offbeat strangeness that ranges from sea to shining sea.

Weirdos screens:
-Friday, Sept. 9 at 7:00 PM
-Sunday, Sept. 11 at 8:45 AM at the Isabel Bader

TIFF screens Sept. 8-18. Please visit tiff.net for more information.