Despite the fact that the list of Canadian teen films is not that long, there were still a solid number of films that we could consider for this month’s Essential Canadian Cinema. The Trotsky is an excellent example of a recent film, while My American Cousin is an older one. After evaluating our options, we finally decided on New Waterford Girl, the story of a brooding 15-year old girl named Agnes Marie “Mooney” Pottie living in small town Nova Scotia in the 70s, with her large family who thinks she’s not right in the head because she wears black and reads books and stuff. She desperately wants to get out and go to an arts high school in New York for which she received a scholarship, and her parents will have none of it. But her fortunes seem to change when a new girl moves into town, all the way from where else but New York City, and inspires Mooney to make her great escape.
Liam: Alright, so I saw New Waterford Girl for the first time quite a few years ago so I had to watch it again to refresh my memory. I remember liking it a lot, but does it stand THE TEST OF TIME?
My answer is: yes. Yes it does.
I found myself falling in love with Liane Balaban as Mooney all over again from the moment we see her standing on the side of the road in crummy Cape Breton weather, with a big sign that says “Mexico”. From then on she’s a character you want to follow, no matter how sullen she is. Actually the entire cast, plus Tricia Fish’s screenplay, is what makes this film so much fun.
It might be a loose comparison but I think New Waterford Girl has the quirky teen comedy thing down pat long before Juno arrived. But what’s more, this is a story that couldn’t take place in any generic small town in North America. The accents, the music (Ashley MacIsaac has a cameo appearance as a fiddler in a bar), the working class Catholicism, the coastline; these are all part of the flavour of a particular time and place. They’re what makes Mooney want to leave in the first place, and they’re also what makes her who she is.
Trista: Well I watched this film for the first time only a few weeks ago, in preparation for this issue, so I’m definitely looking at it from the perspective of an adult (who was delighted when high school was over). I found a lot of very interesting things.
Liane Balaban plays Mooney as a young woman struggling to stand out in a sea of sameness, but she also brings a kind of wisdom to the character that makes her seem out of time. She’s both a teenager and an old woman. She’s a kid who likes to play, but also a seasoned world traveler who has come home. I’m not sure if all those things were intended in Balaban’s performance, but they sure seemed to be there to me.
I also found that despite the fact that she’s from a very specific small town in a very specific place, teens (or, really, people of any age) could certainly relate to wanting to find their own path — to not want to find a boy, get married, get pregnant (probably many times) and raise those kids to be exactly the same as you and repeat the cycle. There are some of us who simply want more, and never is that feeling more apparent than when we’re a teenager.
I do agree that this film stands up to more recent “quirky” teen comedies like Juno or Easy A. I think, really, the only place it differs is in colour palette.
Liam: I haven’t seen enough of Balaban’s work to know if its her own quirks as an actor or if it’s all the character of Mooney that gives her those qualities you describe.
You’re right that the idiosyncrasies don’t keep it from being relatable or accessible in any way. What I found interesting was how it’s those same idiosyncrasies this community has, particularly its taboos surrounding sex, that Mooney decides to use to her advantage.
I will say that the pacing seemed a bit lacklustre for me at times. There’s a point in the film where Mooney becomes inspired to actually implement a plan to get out of town, and it seemed to take a lot longer to get there than I remember. It seems to meander a bit before then.
Trista: Sadly I haven’t seen enough of her work either. She did a small run on Alphas (US TV show that shoots here) and a small run on Supernatural, and while one was very quirky and the other totally straight, I would feel qualified to say she’s got range, but I’m not sure how much was her or acting. (I’m going to say acting. My sense is she’s very talented.)
I was honestly surprised that the idiosyncrasies didn’t prevent me from relating to the place or the characters, because I honestly thought that would be my chief complaint. What I think is interesting is your mention of the pacing. I think the pacing is what makes it a truly East coast story. It takes its time, but it gets there in the end, and everything in between is relevant to the whole experience, which I think is a fairly good metaphor for the film itself.
I thought Mooney’s understanding of her world, and how she uses that to her advantage was inspired. I also thought it was kind of a great twist that she didn’t actually sleep with anyone. She just told everyone she did. While that does turn out to be the serious flaw in the plan, I also thought it was refreshing that Mooney didn’t decide that the only way to get around the system was to betray herself. I think there’s a good message in there for teens, but kind of for everyone.
Not to mention such great performances by Mary Walsh and Nicholas Campbell do a great job of parents trying to be there for a child they don’t understand. I also felt Tara Spencer-Narin did a great job of being a girl from a big city, but not embodying the typical stereotype of “tough big city girl”.
Liam: That is true about the pacing. I may have just been trying to reconcile the movie I remember with the one I was watching; the disadvantage of seeing it for not the first time. But whether it works or not, clearly it’s something both of us, and I’m sure others, would have noticed.
But again, I’m so compelled by Mooney’s character, the kind of person who will deliberately ruin her reputation by pretending to sleep with guys and getting pregnant, just so she’ll have to leave town. There’s also the storyline of Lou going around beating up the guys in town for allegedly cheating on their girlfriends, and if they fall down then they’re guilty. It’s such a funny principle because doesn’t make sense in real life, but it doesn’t matter for this story, and I think they tie it in nicely with Mooney’s storyline at the climax.
I agree, Walsh and Campbell are great. I really like Mooney, but it’s not like her parents are monsters. Actually they seem alright, for the most part. Maybe just a little bit crazy, as I’m sure living with a family that big will make you from time to time. They do manage to balance being just a little bit like the kind of parents Mooney would want to get away from, but they’re also so loving and trying their damnedest to help her in the only ways they know how.
Also it was great to see Mark McKinney make an appearance as the school doctor.
Trista: I think the fact that her parents aren’t monsters is the best part about this film. We all have conflicted feelings about our parents, especially when we’re teenagers, so this just completes the picture for me.
Is New Waterford Girl essential Canadian cinema?
Liam: I think this manages to be a hilarious movie without taking Mooney’s desires and struggle too lightly. Her hopes and fears are legitimate and, as you said, it’s something we can all relate to. I also appreciate the moments where even Mooney can recognize the good things about living in a small community, and the beauty of the landscape itself, even when she knows she’s outgrown it.
I think it’s because of its regionality, and the way the story unfolds because of this location and the relationship each character has with it, that it wouldn’t be the same anywhere else. I think for that reason–and because it’s a solid film–that this is essential Canadian cinema.
Trista: I certainly think so. Despite being very regional, I think there hasn’t been a better movie made about the Canadian teen experience as a whole yet. I think it’s something Canadian teens can relate to and a great movie to boot.
The TFS Verdict: So there you have it! After a short love-in about it, New Waterford Girl joins The Sweet Hereafter, The Dark Hours, Better Than Chocolate, and Trigger on the TFS Essential Canadian Cinema list.
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