A sweet and simple coming of age story set in mid-1970s Atlantic Canada, Bruce McDonald’s latest feature Weirdos doesn’t reinvent genre conventions or even push them in new directions all that much. It doesn’t really need to, however, thanks to the strength of screenwriter Daniel MacIvor’s gentle, unforced script, which picked up a Canadian Screen Award for Best Original Screenplay this past weekend. With a teenage couple at the centre of it all on a road trip that will test the boundaries of their intimacy, Weirdos is a coming of age tale in the most literal definitions of the term, but it adheres to the path it has chosen so well that it’s hard to find much to fault here.
It’s the Fourth of July weekend in Antigonish, Nova Scotia circa 1976. The Vietnam War is in its dying days and the United States is about to celebrate its bicentennial, which shouldn’t mean a lot to Canadians, but many locals find themselves at least passably curious in all the pomp and circumstance going on south of the border. On this weekend, teenage boyfriend and girlfriend Kit (Dylan Authors) and Alice (Julia Sarah Stone) tell their parents that they are going to spend the night at each other’s homes, but really they have slipped away and plan to hitchhike to the city of Sydney. Not only is there a big beach party happening there, but Kit has every intention of leaving his square peg father (Allan Hawco) behind to move in with his more artistically minded mother (Molly Parker) in the big city. Alice tags along because she feels like this is the end for them as a couple, and she wants to say goodbye on what she thinks are the best and most supportive terms. What Alice doesn’t know is that their trip will bring to light secrets that Kit has been keeping from her, and Kit doesn’t know that his mother isn’t all that he thinks she is.
It’s a solid enough premise for a road film, a romance, and an exploration of teen angst all rolled into one, and although Weirdos only offers one major twist (and an easily spotted, heavily telegraphed one at that) it breezes along amicably and with a good deal of conviction in its premise. MacIvor has crafted his screenplay around sequences where it appears as if Kit and Alice are having deep, meaningful conversations for the first time instead of just hanging around and having fun. It’s a key part of growing up and learning about relationships that most films in the vein of Weirdos tend to avoid or sidestep, but here it embraces such moments of pathos and messy feelings instead of relying heavily on teenage awkwardness. There’s conflict here instead of simplistic melodrama. Setting aside some surreal moments where Kit thinks he’s talking to Andy Warhol (Rhys Bevan-John) that only underline emerging themes instead of enhancing or forwarding them, there aren’t many new or revolutionary ideas here, but the film’s sense of maturity takes it a long way.
Such emotional beats are handled well by McDonald’s young stars, especially Stone, who imbues Alice with senses of skepticism and adventure that Kit lacks as a character. Alice is the smart one here, but also the honest and analytical one. Comparatively, Kit is a bit of a blank slate until the big twist about why he’s running away from his dad arises, and even then he pales in depth when placed alongside Alice. Authors does fine with what he’s given, but it feels like Kit should have a little more to do in a story that’s based around his journey towards manhood and acceptance of things that he can’t change. Similarly great here are Hawco and Parker as Kit’s wildly different parents, the latter of whom also picked up a CSA this past weekend for Best Supporting Actress for her efforts. They fill in a lot of the blanks regarding Kit as a character, but it would have been nice to see one of the leads amount to a little more than a twist.
As for McDonald, there’s not much that he has to do as a filmmaker to make Weirdos work. He captures the Nova Scotia countryside and coastline beautifully, even if shooting the film digitally in black and white tends to make everything look a lot more contemporary than it should, and especially since this is a low budget film taking place in the mid-1970s. That stylistic decision adds little, and even in colour the sparseness of Kit and Alice’s world should have worked just fine, but McDonald does know to let his young leads figure things out on their own. He’s clearly giving them a lot of leeway to play around and explore the feelings of their characters, which is something McDonald has always excelled at throughout his career with both adults and young people. He knows that human nature can’t be forced on camera, and his delicate touch makes him a perfect choice for a project like Weirdos.
Is Weirdos opening weekend worthy?
It’s a lesser film in McDonald’s filmography, but not a bad one. Those in the mood for a laid back teenage drama will find enough to enjoy here.
Weirdos opens Friday, March 17, 2017 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check their website for more information.