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The Boys of St. Vincent is a Canadian film about children who are physically and sexually abused at a Catholic orphanage. The film, directed by John N. Smith, is inspired by a real-life events at Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland. Aside from its subject matter, the film was also highly controversial as it was banned from airing in Ontario in 1992. It had the potential for prejudice during the trials of the Brothers who were charged. The Boys of St. Vincent went on to accumulate many prestigious awards and nominations, winning seven of nine Gemini Awards nominations in 1994 and the Grand Prize at the 1993 Banff Television Festival.

TFS writers Will Brownridge and Jordan Adler discuss whether or not The Boys of St. Vincent belongs on TFS’ Essential Canadian Cinema list.

Will: Since we’re looking at controversial films, it seems best to look at how controversial The Boys of St. Vincent actually is. I wasn’t aware of any problems surrounding the film itself, although it seems that it was banned from television in certain provinces, since some of the cases that it was based on were still on trial. I think it’s the subject matter that’s truly controversial, and not so much the film. There are some rather surprising scenes, particularly a shower scene involving the boys.

Honestly, I’m surprised that this was even included in the film, and the fact that it was made for television makes it even more shocking. Something like this would have to run on a channel like HBO now, as I can’t imagine it going directly to network television without being cut.

Jordan: The few scenes of child nudity were startling and indeed uncomfortable. The clear issue with these scenes is not necessarily that there is nudity (since the parents or guardians of these young actors must have given consent), but because they put the viewer in a deeply icky position. The shots lingering on the boys’ rears are they shower are shot in a way that suggests voyeurism on the brothers’ part. However, since film is a medium that we watch, it exposes that we are voyeurs too.

That, to me, is a major problem with the film. It forces us to take the perspective of a pedophile. What Smith could have done is have us watch Brother Lavin watch the boys and linger on his reactions. The result would have been more disturbing and revealing but less distracting. I kept wondering if there was a way to express the horror of these abuses without showing anything explicit. It may have been smarter for Smith to suggest, rather than show.
Besides some of the controversial content, what did you think of the story? Also, do you think it needed all three hours?

Will: It does seem unnecessary to linger on the boys in the shower, and certainly doesn’t need to contain any nudity. Suggestion is always more powerful, but the first half of this film seems more concerned with showing rather than telling. In terms of making Brother Lavin (played amazingly by Henry Czerny) a despicable villain, it works perfectly.That does bring me to the film in general. Where Brother Lavin is truly disgusting in the first half, he suddenly seems to be more sympathetic in the second half. Not only has he been committing these terrible crimes, but we’ve witnessed some of them in almost too graphic detail. Now, his sad past seems to be coming up to almost justify his actions. The two parts just don’t fit together very well, with the first half being the much better part. Of course, on television, it would have been shown over two nights, and perhaps it wouldn’t be as jarring. It just didn’t seem like there was as much shock, disgust, and power, given to the second half of the film. You almost feel denied of justice, as the cover-up and sentencing of the crime don’t seem to be the true focus.

Jordan: I completely agree. I found the second 90-minute half of The Boys of St. Vincent far inferior to the first half. The first section of the film was haunting but also very moving, as it shows the young boys grappling with the abuse and trying to speak out against it to the authorities. It is also an eye-opening look at how so much sickening testimony remains under wraps for so long.

I just found the second half to be a slow, meandering mess that could have been trimmed by half and stuck onto the end of the first film. Since we have already witnessed the abuse and testimony, there really is no suspense as we wait for the verdict in court. The only interesting dramatic arc is whether or not Kevin will testify and lay out his painful memories of abuse for the jury. The first half of The Boys of St. Vincent is well worth watching, but the second half is flat and un-involving despite the actors’ best efforts.

Will: I think a little bit of the problem with the second half, is that there really isn’t any resolution. Since the film isn’t really based on fact, as it’s a story about incidents that are similar, it’s odd that we’re not given the pleasure of seeing Brother Lavin pay for his crimes. Obviously, nothing is going to go well for his character, but the combination of a lack of the end of his story, and how they spend 90 minutes seeming to look for sympathy, it seems like the film is asking viewers whether this behaviour could ever be tolerated. I’m not sure that I feel quite as strongly as you regarding the quality of the second half, but I will agree that it’s a step back from the previous 90 minutes.Looking at the acting in the first half, the kids must be applauded for their amazing performances. In particular, Johnny Morina as Kevin, who is forced to do some incredibly uncomfortable scenes. I was also really impressed with the quality of the first half of the film. I never would have imagined that it was a made for TV movie, as the performances are beyond some theatrical films, and it has a look that belongs on the big screen. Canadian films tend to have a look, especially around the time that this film was made, but it’s something that you don’t notice until the second half of the movie.

Jordan: I also think part one has a finer production value, with the terrific set design atop the already magnificent performances. It’s a film that does not seem to be hindered by its “made for TV” nature.

Is The Boys of St. Vincent Essential Canadian Cinema?

Will: Even though the second half of the film fails to live up to what has come before, the entire film is still essential Canadian cinema. It’s very powerful, focused on a problem that still exists, and shows that we can produce top quality entertainment, even on the small screen.

Jordan: Yes and no. For the first part, it is a compelling and superbly acted drama that does not feel dated due to how sex scandals involving religious figures continues to be a major issue in modern times. The boys’ resistance against their abusive brothers is powerful and the story should entice the viewer to look into similar scandals like this one in Canada’s history. However, the second volume is little more than a limp, long-winded footnote that betrays its haunting predecessor. I recommend those intrigued by the story seek out the first volume but not waste their time with part two.

The Final Verdict

While the second half of The Boys of St. Vincent fails to serve the story justice, the first part appears to be more essential. Let us know if you agree or disagree in the comments below.