Being Canadian, some of my readers have wondered why I don't review more Canadian films, thereby supporting the fledgling homegrown entertainment industry. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that the majority of Canadian films I have seen are not that good. While I certainly do not expect Canadian films to equal the production values seen in Hollywood productions, I do expect the budget constraints to motivate Canadian filmmakers to put more effort into their scripts, creating emotionally involving films chock full of subtleties and layers of interpretation. After all, whether you are working with a budget of $100 million or $100 thousand, a bad script is a bad script and it doesn't matter how much money you throw at it ("Battlefield Earth", anyone?).
At the risk of ruffling some feathers, my experience with Canadian films is that they are generally indulgent and meandering travelogues that lack the sufficient narrative depth to answer the question "so what?" While there are a number of Canadian films that do not fall into this category, and thus can be viewed on a number of levels, such as Don McKellar's "Last Night" or the films of Atom Egoyan ("Exotica", "The Sweet Hereafter"), the majority of homegrown product is one-dimensional, with "The Red Violin" as a case in point. Unfortunately, this is the case with "New Waterford Girl", a Canadian film that has created quite a stir in arthouses across Canada. Though this character study of teen angst in a coastal town does have its moments, "New Waterford Girl" is little more than a mildly interesting catharsis of the screenwriter's teenage years that is quickly forgotten once the end credits start to roll.
15-year old Mooney Pottie (Liane Balaban, in her feature film debut) serves as our tour guide for the town of New Waterford during the 1970s, a God-fearing community located in Cape Breton. With only one restaurant and one bar to speak of, a main strip that lasts a couple of short blocks, and no visitors to speak of, New Waterford is a sheltered community where cultural inbreeding has led to a state of stagnation. Being a bright and gifted girl, Mooney is a virtual outcast in this stifling community. As a result, she spends her days in a melancholy demeanor with her head in the clouds, dreaming of the day that she can leave the town to go onto bigger and better things. Though her scholastic aptitude has secured her a scholarship to study in New York, the traditional ways of her father (Nicholas Campbell of CBC's "DaVinci's Inquest") and mother (Mary Walsh of "This Hour Has 22 Minutes") leave her firmly rooted to life in New Waterford.
However, Mooney finds impetus to change her circumstances when a new family moves in next door. Hailing from New York City, Lou Benzoa (Tara Spencer-Nairn) and her mother Midge (Cathy Moriarty of "Gloria") are 'laying low' in town for a few months, and wind up being even more out of place than Mooney (one of Midge's great ideas is to hold mambo lessons in the mining town). Mooney and Lou become fast friends, and they eventually hatch a plan to get Mooney down to New York-- convince her parents that she has a 'bun in the oven', which would force them to send her by train to nearby Sydney to have the problem 'taken care of'. However, the only differences would be that Mooney would still be a virgin and the train would be headed for the lights of New York City. Of course, like any comedy, Mooney's plan doesn't exactly work out the way it is planned, and Mooney has her hands full when her scheme spirals wildly out of control.
A number of critics have compared "New Waterford Girl" to the much darker "Margaret's Museum" from 1995. And while this latest ode to Cape Breton life is certainly more upbeat in its outlook, "Margaret's Museum" was memorable in how it examined the often-difficult choices and trade-offs made by characters whose only source of income carried with it grave risks. In the case of "New Waterford Girl", Tricia Fish's autobiographical script functions as a charming and idiosyncratic coming-of-age tale, but offers little else, including any overt plot mechanics. Sure, "New Waterford Girl" has its moments. Despite being labeled by the townsfolk as 'crazy', Mooney is probably the sanest one around, a point that is mirthfully made in a number of scenes. Also, the film takes a few shots at how Catholicism and hypocrisy often go hand-in-hand in this community. People familiar with the town, or Cape Breton in general, will probably enjoy reminiscing over the distinct Atlantic Canada flavor that permeates the film. However, by the film's end, other than Mooney's personal epiphany, there is little to make the film stand out among the numerous other coming-of-age-in-a-small-town films out there.
Thankfully, the film's lack of narrative depth is made up by some truly wonderful performances. A journalism student at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnic University by day, Balaban's earnest performance captures both the intellectual maturity and emotional vulnerability of her character. Calling to mind Natalie Portman, who recently appeared in a coming-of-age tale of her own ("Where the Heart Is"), Balaban is definitely a gifted young actress to keep an eye on. Spencer-Nairn, a graduate of Vancouver's Film School, perfectly interprets the outspoken and spunky Lou, and shares an uncommon chemistry in her scenes with co-star Balaban. Campbell also has his moments in his down-to-earth role as Mooney's father, while Walsh takes a break from over-the-top satire to deliver a well-rounded performance as Mooney's well-meaning mother.
If you long for life in Atlantic Canada, or you have a love of quirky comedy-dramas, then "New Waterford Girl" will probably fit the bill. However, if you seek something with a little more depth, then "New Waterford Girl" will probably be little more than a mildly interesting evening's diversion that will quickly be forgotten by the next morning.