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Furthering her transition from acting to writing and directing behind the camera, Amy Jo Johnson’s debut feature The Space Between bears a lot of the same shortcomings many first features have. It’s overstuffed, occasionally too quirky and irreverent for its own good, and not every joke in this road trip comedy hits as hard as it probably should. But between those first-feature jitters, the former Power Ranger and Flashpoint actress shows a considerable amount of promise for the future, and the film itself is a likeable, laid back, sometimes bawdy romp that’s made with the best of intentions and is comfortable in its own skin.

Mitch (Michael Cram), a blue-collar go-kart track worker in rural Ontario, finally has the family of his dreams, but his world is rocked with a letter marked “return to sender.” Mitch, who long thought he was impotent, learns that his newborn child isn’t actually his, and that his wife, Jackie (Sonya Salomaa), not only slept with another man in an effort to get pregnant, but that man was a university student barely out of his teenage years. Devastated, Mitch snaps and goes off in search of the student to deliver the “good news” in the form of a well timed punch to the face. He’s aided in his quest for vengeance by Emily (Julia Sarah Stone), a depressed young woman who finds a sense of purpose in helping Mitch. Meanwhile, Jackie’s dysfunctional family reunion turns into a search party keen on locating Mitch before he does anything he’ll soon regret.

The biggest problem with The Space Between is an overabundance of characters that could sustain their own film. With a limited budget and time to shoot such an independent production, the quirks of The Space Between’s characters aren’t allowed room to breathe. Everyone here has a lengthy backstory, including Johnson as a lawyer with a crumbling marriage, and Jayne Eastwood and Kristian Brunn as mother and son funeral home proprietors. This does serve Johnson well in her desire to depict all of her characters as mostly likeable and flawed head-cases, but once Jackie’s family begins driving around in a limo to find Mitch, it’s always in danger of becoming too much. Add to this a reliance on quirky indie movie conventions, and The Space Between could have easily turned into something toxic.

Thankfully, it never does, and the film is merely top heavy. As an actor turned filmmaker, Johnson has a way with her actors (especially Cram and Stone, who have great chemistry) that allow each of them to experiment, play around, and find their characters in an unforced manner that’s refreshing. They might be written on the page as quirky and irreverent, but Johnson and her cast find great humanity in these people, and while the individual situations along the way border on outlandish, there’s always a grounding element to hold it all together. Johnson also proves to have a stunning visual eye, and The Space Between captures the feel of small town Ontario better than any other similarly pitched Canadian independent productions this year. It’s the rare example of a low budget comedy that actually gives viewers something to look at while the characters go about their business. It doesn’t sound like an important thing for a film like this to have, but placing The Space Between side by side with any similarly plotted comedy will show a world of difference.

The Space Between functions nicely as a coming out party for Johnson as a filmmaker, and I’m excited to see what she tackles next. If she can make something like this work as well as it does, I’m willing to bet she can do just about anything she wants after it.

Is The Space Between essential viewing?

Considering that the state of the Canadian indie comedy has been pretty dire for quite some time, The Space Between feels like something accomplished and made with passion and joy. For those reasons, it’s worth checking out.

The Space Between opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, August 25, 2017. Check their website for more information. It also opens in select theatres across Ontario the same day. It’s available online September 1st.

The Space Between Trailer