Following the unexpected death of her mother, sixteen-year-old Fern (Imajyn Cardinal) makes an immediate and decisive decision to make a go of things on her own. Her main goal: to save enough money to become a millionaire by the age of 53. Moving out of her old Montreal apartment, Fern lies about her age and experience, and becomes the temporary superintendent of an apartment building in exchange for free room and board. But soon after moving in, Fern runs afoul of a particularly nasty and demanding tenant (Pascale Bussières) who looks to be the reason why no one has lasted very long as super of the building.
The Saver, written and directed by German-Canadian Wiebke von Carolsfeld (Stay, Marion Bridge) and adapted from Edeet Ravel’s 2008 novel, isn’t a terribly made film, but an unnecessarily punishing one. It’s a great example of what most outsiders stereotype Canadian films as being: gothic inspired tales of familial loss in a harsh climate with hardened people and depressing themes. It’s intentionally hard to sit through without squirming and emotionally manipulative, but those feelings of discomfort don’t lead to any sort of rewarding or thoughtful feelings about what the viewer has just witnessed.
The problems start almost immediately, getting off to a needlessly fast start that never delves into the relationship between Fern and her mother. We see them playing cribbage. We know they clean houses. That’s about it. The rest of the film does little to illuminate the relationship except to say that Fern had complicated feelings about the woman who raised her. This is a misstep because Fern isn’t a particularly likable teenager, grief stricken or not. She’s decidedly selfish with a streak of almost malicious, but probably unconscious petulance. Cardinal is certainly believable in the role, but the character isn’t a subtle one.
Without a relatable, understandable, or likable protagonist, the film doubles down on all things lachrymose by placing Fern in unwinnable situations where she has to deal with people more loathsome than she is. Bussières portrays her difficult woman as nothing shy of a sadist, and the film’s attempt to explain why she’s so angry excuses nothing. That’s to say nothing about Alexandre Landry’s role as a false friend to Fern who keeps trying to force sex on her. These characters and Fern’s interactions with them take up so much of the film, that there’s no escape from feeling generally uncomfortable watching all of it.
It’s competently made and performed, but also unbalanced. Before its unearned, all too easily resolved happy ending, The Saver wants the viewer to feel nothing but unrestrained misery. There’s a place for such films and they can be done very well, but this one yearns for even the darkest of humour or human sympathy. It asks a lot of the viewer and gives nothing back in return.