At the risk of sounding too dramatic, Chandler Levack's nostalgic and heartfelt film I Like Movies, starring Isaiah Lehtinen, Percy Hynes White and Romina D'Ugo, brought us more joy and excitement than we've had watching any movie in a long time.
Set in Burlington, Ont., in 2003, 17-year-old Lawrence Kweller (Lehtinen) is teenage cinephile, or as many would refer to him, a film bro who can often be snobby about his movie knowledge. When Lawrence isn't watching movies, he's tuning in to Saturday Night Live and making his own movies with his best friend Matt Macarchuck (White). Lawrence has one solid goal after high school graduation, going to film school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, which his single mom Terri (Krista Bridges) isn't particularly supportive of, especially because of the high tuition fee.
Lawrence's plan to pay for film school in New York is to work at the local Sequels video store, under manager Alana (Romina D’Ugo), who at one point was a working actor. The two don't necessarily see eye to eye at the outset, but they develop an interesting bond and friendship as Lawrence gets closer to graduation.
“I really wanted to make a film and it wasn't happening for me, and I was in my 30s and I think I was becoming sort of a bitter, resentful film critic,” Levack told Yahoo Canada about beginning the process of making I Like Movies. "There was this grant through Telefilm called Talent to Watch where you could get $125,000 to make your first feature.”
“So I was like, OK think of an idea that you could do for $125,000, that could mostly take place in one location. Use it as a great experience to work with amazing actors and write something that's kind of just a showcase for actors. That made me start thinking about my last year of high school when I worked at Blockbuster, and I felt like that could be a really fun environment to set a movie in.”
"Fun" is an understatement when you watch the final product of Levack's film. First and foremost, while nostalgia has become an increasingly hot and attractive tool in entertainment recently, Levack has nailed down how to do it right. With references to things like the Big Shiny Tunes CDs, the release of the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Punch-Drunk Love (starring Adam Sandler), and of course the incredibly detailed set of a 2000s video store, I Like Movies really transports you back to that time in a way that's endearing, but still feels unique.
'I wanted to do justice for the Lawrence's in the world'
It's clear from I Like Movies that Levack and Lehtinen were able to tap into that sort of inexplicable movie-making magic that just works. Lehtinen highlighted that he quickly realized that they were "on the same wavelength," both seeing themselves in Lawrence.
“From the moment that I got the first script, ... I read it and it made me cry,” Lehtinen said. “I had never seen my adolescent experience portrayed in such a substantial way.”
“I am a little bit of a sad, jaded and bitter person who digs their heels into loving media. ... I love movies but I'm more obsessed with other things and it was just kind of like transposing that onto cinephilia. I wanted to do justice for the Lawrence's in the world, the Lawrence's of different things.”
With so many elements of Lawrence connected to Levack's personal experience when she was 17, the filmmaker did find it easy, "in a strange way," to write this story with a teenage boy as the lead.
“I guess there is something about the way that we allow young men, or just male characters in general, to kind of be more anti-heroes and be pricklier, and get away with more d-ckish behaviour, in a way that we don't allow female characters to be," Levack said. “There's been a whole conversation over the past few years of unlikable women characters in media and the way that we've scrutinized those characters."
"The media is so much crueler, and meaner and harsher, to both the women that play those characters, but also the portrayal of the characters. So I felt like I got off easy with Lawrence. I feel like if Lawrence had been played by a young girl, maybe the reception of the film wouldn't have been as kind, which is a little bit messed up. But at the same time, I really wanted to create these very complex female characters where his coming-of-age is actually guided by the women in his life, and really allowed him to kind of be on a path of healing.”
For Romina D'Ugo, she loved that Alana was "fairly put together" in the story, but as it progresses we start to see through the character's "armour," exposing that she's more troubled than maybe even she believed.
“She gives this young kid his first job and she's leading this crew of staff, and I think it's a beautiful ode to humans out there doing their best, who have baggage and troubles, and a hard time, but just trying to keep it together," D'Ugo said. "Then along the way, making some really inappropriate decisions and having to live with them.”
'I Like Movies' exemplifies the way to craft characters with traumatic backstories
What's interesting about Lawrence and Alana is that they're at different points in their life, with different life experiences, but there are elements of their personalities that make them, as Levack describes, like "mirror images of each other.
“Both of them say things that are projected at the other that they could be saying to themselves,” Levack said. “Lawrence kind of wants to be an adult and she kind of wants to be a teenager again, or seeing herself as a teenager kind of projected through his ambitions and dreams."
“Also, I feel like it's really interesting to watch a movie about a teenage boy and a woman in her 30s that doesn't have this romantic, sexual undercurrent behind it necessarily. It really is just this very complex friendship.”
In terms of crafting characters with trauma, Levack's movie really emphasizes the complexity and individuality of that within her characters.
“I feel like sometimes when people have a traumatic backstory in a movie, that's all it is, and that's the only defining characteristic that they have," she said. "They're just instantly kind of a victim."
"I guess for me, having lived through certain elements of them, … you're still responsible for your own actions in life, and you're still responsible for the way that you treat other people. I just wanted to have that be reflected in the way that life usually is, where it's kind of seeded into everything, and sometimes you're having these strange explosions of emotion or anger, or sadness or melancholy. And you don't really understand what it's actually about until it's far too late.”
Welcome to the 'Canadian film renaissance'
Canadians, in particular, have a lot to celebrate in I Like Movies, with so many references and images that are specific to the Canadian experience, particularly the Greater Toronto Area.
“I feel like in a weird way, Canadians are always apologizing for our own culture,” Levack said. “When we set a story in Canada, it's always like a little joke or a wink or something, but we don't actually kind of take ownership over these locations.”
“Canadian movies are either an amorphous Chicago or New York, or they're like a fishing village in Newfoundland, and there's nowhere in between. Unless we're talking about Quebec cinema, which ... does have this regionality and specificity that's missing, I think, from a lot of Canadian cinema.”
The beauty of a film like I Like Movies is that it proves you don't need to be Canadian to enjoy a Canadian movie, which Levack and D'Ugo saw in places like Santa Barbara, California, where the movie had its U.S. premiere.
“It was interesting to see how it still really resonated with people in the States, but they didn't understand any of the references that, here, destroy,” Levack said. “I went to a film festival in Norway. I went to a film festival in Taiwan recently, ... it seems like even though it's so hyper-specifically Canadian, there's something about the specificity of those details that actually makes it more universal.”
D'Ugo also highlighted that most of the films we see that follow characters trying to "make it" in film and television are most often American, not Canadian.
“The truth is that in Canada, there is this decision or this opportunity to try being in the States, whether it's New York or LA," D'Ugo said. "Where do you set up shop? And just being an actor is a gamble, but I really appreciate that it's so transparent that the characters in the film touch upon the fact that we're basically trying to figure out ... where it's better to be when you're doing your art."
"At the end of the day, I think it sort of speaks to these heightened beliefs that we have in our lives of what success looks like. But if you're doing what you love, and you're putting your own experience into it, that's the point. That's the point of making art.”
As Lehtinen stressed, we're in the "Canadian film renaissance" right now.
“I think Canada's the funniest place in the world," Lehtinen said. "It’s just such a weird, strange place and we just kind of end up turning out the strangest people."
"I would love for the world to embrace the identity of a Canadian comedy. ... It'll happen in due time.”
I Like Movies opens March 10 in Toronto (Bell Lightbox), Burlington (SilverCity), Hamilton (Playhouse), Vancouver (International Village) and Montreal. The film opens March 11 in Winnipeg and throughout the spring in other Canadian cities.