(Canada, 95 min.)
Written and directed by Darren Curtis
Starring: Nabil Rajo, Jahmil French, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Oluniké Adeliyi, Fanny Mallette, Brent Skagford, Théo Pellerin
One of my guilty pleasure when it comes to cheap Canadian cinema nobody’s heard of is Darren Curtis and Pat Kiely’s cracked-out and ridiculous comedy Who is KK Downey? A wonderful discovery at the 2008 Kingston Canadian Film Festival that some of my friends still cite as a reason why they won’t see Canadian films with me, KK Downey is a riotously silly parody of faux-author JT LeRoy who gained fame by penning a bestseller allegedly based on a previous life as a truck stop hustler. It’s a hoot largely due to its madcap direction and to Curtis’s fearlessly looney performance as the privileged white guy who crafts a story of oppression to sell his shitty book.
It’s therefore a surprise to see Curtis make his solo directorial debut with the gritty, if self-serious, thriller Boost. The film is a dark and serious anomaly in a résumé filled with movies that do anything but take themselves seriously. Boost is a notable step up in production value, since this crime film set in Montreal’s Park-Ex neighbourhood looks a class above its paygrade with sombre joyrides through the urban jungle and steely cinematography splashed with oranges and blues from the artificial lights that make the city glow. Comedy might still be Curtis’s forte, but this glimpse into a pocket of the city that rarely makes the screen is a fresh addition to the Canadian scene.
It’s the story of Hakeem, played by this year’s Canadian Screen Award Best Actor winner Nabil Rajo, an East African immigrant supporting his family while going to school. Hakeem and his mom, Amina (Oluniké Adeliyi, very effective in a few brief scenes), struggle to make ends meet. He works extra hours at the local car wash to bring in cash for the family.
Any kid wants a little extra dough for himself, though, and Hakeem scores some dollars on the sly by scoping out the choice rides at the carwash with his friend A-Mac. They then tag the car’s digits, hitch a ride with the local “used car salesman,” give the car a boost, and deliver the goods.
There’s a difference between Hakeem and A-Mac, however, that defines them from the start. A-Mac is a rebellious troublemaker from the get-go and he only had two things on his mind: booty and more booty. Hakeem has a good head on his shoulders. He knows the consequences of this shady line of work having seen his father ripped away from the family and leaving Amina to fend for the kids with so little she can barely keep the taps running. He’s smart, conscientious, and constantly waffling between right and wrong. Even when he missteps into mischief, it’s for a good cause. Rob from the rich and give it to the poor, eh?
When the system fails and when society still lives by pervasive dichotomies of inclusion and exclusion, kids like Hakeem and A-Mac might be tempted to dip into the underworld. These dynamics are best encapsulated in a joke told by Hakeem’s father figure/crime boss Ram (played by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine aka Jacques the chef from Treme) about the fallacy of being accepted as a member of the land of the Maple Leaf. The joke, in short, tells of an immigrant who proudly informs his friend that he takes his kid to hockey every morning and grabs a double double and a maple donut to enjoy while watching his son on the ice. “Name one thing that could make me feel less Canadian,” Ram says in the immigrant’s voice, to which he delivers the friend’s reply, “Fuck you, Paki.” There might only be one laugh in Boost, but it highlights Curtis’s ability to say more about Canadian multiculturalism and its discontents.
In the vein of MontrealLa Blanche and There Where Atilla Passes, Boost offers a portrait of Montreal’s multicultural make-up and reflects the dynamics of race, culture, exclusion, and belonging that struggle to find fair representation in the mainstream. Curtis provides a look at the experiences of Canadians lost between the tiles of the façade of the multicultural mosaic. Boosts asks how migrants and their children can achieve the equality and freedom Canada promises them when schools are hour-long bus rides away and when the necessities of life are prohibitively expensive.
Rajo is an earnestly compelling lead as he wrestles with Hakeem’s moral compass. The boy clearly knows the difference between right and wrong, but he also recognizes that society treats him like a secondary citizen, and Rajo’s empathetic performance shifts the focus from Hakeem’s delinquent ways to the situation that makes him feel the need to turn to crime. Shy and reserved, he finds his steely resolve in the final act when some very bad decisions put the boys down a dark path with violent consequences. He gives audiences a fuller portrait of a character they might otherwise see only as a hood or thug.
Boost is now available on iTunes.