TIFF Review: Porcupine Lake

Porcupine Lake
(Canada, 85 min.)
Written and directed by Ingrid Veninger
Starring: Charlotte Salisbury, Lucinda Armstrong Hall, Christopher Bolton, Delphine Roussel, Harrison Tanner, Hallie Switzer
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (World Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF
Carol finds its maplecore counterpart in Porcupine Lake. As with the female friendship turned whirlwind love affair of Carol and Therese, the journey of Bea and Kate starts with a glance. Bea (Charlotte Salisbury) is having some ice cream at her family’s snack shack. (One of those French fry joints in cottage country where everyone goes for greasy grub.) Kate (Lucinda Armstrong Hall) comes in and grabs some scoops with her besties and, awaiting her frozen delight, turns arounds and works her 13-year-old eyes up and down the other girl whose ice cream is starting to melt. One can feel Bea blush with an unfamiliar tingle.

Ingrid Veninger (The Animal Project) probes the lives of girls and young women in her latest film Porcupine Lake. This sweet, intimate, and authentic tale of sisterhood set in cottage country is an appropriate and important story with which the dreadlocked director makes her biggest film to date.  A "big" Veninger film is an oxymoron of the highest order, though, since the comparatively large canvas of Porcupine Lake nevertheless beholds the same range of intimacy and independent spirit of her previous works. This coming-of-age drama is Veninger’s most polished film yet and in some ways, her most personal one.

Let’s backtrack a step for context. Porcupine Lake is a product of Veninger’s Punk Films Lab, which drew the attention of Oscar winner Melissa Leo back when she was promoting a film at the Whistler Film Festival a few years ago. The lab serves to further the careers of women in Canadian film, who often receive a push of encouragement for their first features, but then are left to their own devices for features number two and three, if the opportunities for those projects ever even materialize. With Veninger’s well-earned status as the DIY indie film queen of the Canadian film scene, she’s paying it forward with a method of making movies and inspiring minds. People do want to see films that reflect the lives and experiences of their makers, an act that, in turn, allows audiences see something of themselves onscreen.

Porcupine Lake reflects this girl power spirit with the story of young teen Bea, a city slicker from Toronto, and her friend Kate, a Muskoka, wrestling with the bonds of sisterhood and the confusing pangs of first love during a warm summer in the cottage country of Port Severn. Porcupine Lake is to Sleeping Giant what Nancy Drew is to the Hardy Boys. The carefree summer days and nights at the cottage let Bea and Kate discover both themselves and one other as they simply enjoy being innocent and girly before school starts again in September. They have ice cream; they spy on Kate’s horny older brother; they have sleepovers and kiss goodnight. All normal stuff, but confusing stuff too for that horribly awkward puberty stage when life, love, and everything in between make zero sense.

The intimacy of the film gives a sweetly innocent portrait of the pivotal summer days of youth. As Veninger’s camera goes into the homes of both the girls and probes their family dynamics, Porcupine Lake fills a hole in the self-representation department as it gives screen time to the experiences of young women. Bea and Kate’s fateful summer illustrates the power of friendship—even a short-lived one—in shaping the mind and identity of a blossoming teen. The bashful Bea, guided by Salisbury’s passive and self-effacing performance, blossoms to find her voice throughout the film as she takes to heart Kate’s fateful advice of “never squeal.” Bea witnesses all sorts of behaviour that challenges her perception of right and wrong. She gradually comes to terms with her own right to speak up towards the summer’s end and Salisbury's growth by the end of the film is fierce.

Porcupine Lake wrestles with its own challenges that come with these two young women. The film illustrates both the pros and cons of putting a film in the hands of newcomer actors. What it gains in authenticity it sometimes loses in emotional power, but Veninger’s style isn’t to go for those big explosive moments that leave everyone blubbering in the end, anyways, and that's just fine. One can’t help but be moved by the overall package, since the film gives an honest, uncontrived portrait of finding oneself in the most unexpected places. It’s as sweet as the breeze of a summer night.

Find more TIFF coverage here.
TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more info on this year’s festival.