The Magic of Scarborough
Review by Thom Ernst – Film Correspondent
(April 9, 2022 – Toronto, ON) Whatever miracles need to align to ensure that the good intentions of young filmmakers come through were abundantly present during the making of Scarborough. This first feature, co-directed by producer Sasha Nakai and cinematographer/editor Rich Williamson, risks breaking logistics rules, not the least of which is its unassuming and (to an audience outside of Ontario) nondescript title, Scarborough.
I cast no dispersions on the borough that rests just east of Toronto, but even Scarborough residents must be surprised to see their city get marquee treatment. The consciousness that Scarborough follows is more river than stream, branching into as many tributaries as there are in the Amazon.
Scarborough is a film not easily imagined based on an elevator pitch, at least not to any effect that adequately serves the story’s magnitude, which is, in fact, many stories.
Then to add further strain to logistics, Scarborough dares to have a 2-hour plus running time, which can be fatal for an independent feature without star power.
But there is a lot in Scarborough to unpack. And Nakai and Williamson take the responsibility of bringing Catherine Fernandez’s award-winning novel seriously. The result of their combined efforts, along with a cast that pulls through in ways that almost seem surreal, is one of the most harmoniously synched portraits of childhood in chaos.
There is magic in this film, rising out of simple observations, allowing the camera to linger through moments of play, pausing for glimpses of charity, even while holding fast to the possibility of tragedy. A film that nurtures a balance of trust with betrayal.
Fernandez, a playwright and actor, created three children and the smattering of adults who inhabit their world. It’s a story of conflict, pain, and friendship. It helps, perhaps, that Fernandez is on board as a screenwriter, although compelling screenplays still need the guiding hand of a good director, even if the screenwriter writes from their own material.
The film’s three central characters are all children living in a low-income neighbourhood.
Laura lives in quiet fear and neglect, trading off the uncertainty of life with a substance-using mother or cautiously treading her father’s volatile and racially charged whims. She imagines a life floating above the ground, playing mother to the paper-bird cut-outs she’s stuck to her window, eyeing the leaves still clinging to the branches of trees, singing songs about baby ducks.
Sylvie lives with her mother, her sickly father, and a younger brother with undiagnosed developmental issues and, therefore, untreated.
The third child is Bing, a courteous, soft-spoken child who endures the taunts of bullies and the unfortunate psychotic outbursts of a mentally unstable father.
Scarborough is a film that seems to be made under a preference for intuition over logic, unfettered by what should be done and trusting what can be done; knowing that the simple gaze of a child looking upon a dead leaf still clinging to a branch can resonate both loss and hope, that withholding a character’s dialogue for the first quarter of the film and then giving her voice, could resonate like suddenly hearing a bird sing.
It’s been six months since its initial screening at TIFF, so I don’t think it’s premature to praise it as one of the year’s best films.
Also: Watch the trailer, learn more about the cast and crew of Scarborough.
Also see: Scarborough named Best Motion Picture at the 2022 Canadian Screen Awards
Also see: Cinematic Arts Awards at the CSAs.
Thom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward.