Heartbreaking But Humorous: ‘Scarborough’ Film Review

by Koom Kankesan


Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson‘s Scarborough brings Catherine Hernandez‘s novel to life. It follows the lives of three children who contend with poverty, setbacks, and social struggle. Taking a realistic, unflinching look at the travails of those people often underrepresented in films, it honours their lives with humour, pathos, and warmth.

Scarborough, directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, and adapted from Catherine Hernandez’s novel of the same name, tells the story of three children whose lives intersect at a literacy center over the course of three seasons. The three children are Bing (Liam Diaz), Sylvie (Essence Fox), and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel) and they contend with social obstacles that would decimate most people. The film is more about a place though, a social state, a frame of mind in a way that reminds one of Entre Les Murs (The Class is the 2008 film’s English title) or perhaps Dave Lapp’s graphic novel Drop-In. Toronto’s Scarborough, though it comprises of an array of diverse neighbourhoods from the economically challenged to the very comfortably middle class, has acquired a reputation for being poor, run down, gang ridden, a haven for immigrants and criminals alike. At some point, people began jokingly referring to it as Scarlem, a reference to the negative stereotypes associated with Harlem.

As such, this film is both a paean of sympathy and an act of defiance against this portrayal of the much benighted suburb. The film’s narrative is loosely stitched together by the kids and their comings and goings from the literacy centre where we’re told (usually through the sneers of characters who look down upon the clientele) parents and children go to receive free food. Bing’s mother is essentially a single mom from the Philippines because his father is mentally ill, refuses treatment, and therefore cannot fulfill his parental duties. His mother works at a nail salon and encourages Bing to feel good about himself despite being taunted by other children for his latent queerness, imagination, and sensitivity. Sylvie’s the most spirited of the children; she considers Bing her best friend and stands up to his bullies, generally speaking back to other kids who look down on them. Indigenous, her mother is also effectively a single mom as Sylvie’s father is ill and much of their struggle centers around Sylvie’s brother who is autistic and therefore needs support and help. In the world of this narrative, even getting the doctor at the local walk-in clinic to comply with a referral for assessments and tests is an insurmountable obstacle. Laura has it the hardest; both her parents are volatile, filled with aggression, make poor choices, and are highly dysfunctional in different ways. Laura bounces between the two and has been so badgered by life that she is illiterate and hardly talks, exhibiting only the faintest of affects and disappearing into the background wherever she stands.

The film is heartbreaking and will take a heavy emotional toll on the viewer, so be prepared for this. However, there is a strong sense of spirit and humanity that pervades the film, not to mention a defiant sense of humour. The film moves through fall, winter, and spring as the various characters go through their ups and downs. Laura’s story is probably the hardest to watch as her emotional experiences are the harshest. Throughout, the parents are cast as very human characters with very human failings and the protraction of their journeys through time certainly breeds a kind of familiarity and gruff sympathy for what they go through. The film is sentimentally unsparing though, despite its spirited warmth, and the humour that is leavened throughout takes aim at those in positions of privilege or those that are unsympathetic to the plights of the most disenfranchised members in our society, whether they be adults or children. The film doesn’t fall into the trap of varnishing the protagonists or portraying children as saintly. The only saintly character is Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani), the person who oversees the literacy centre, and she’s one of the few characters who brings a little light into Laura’s life. The scene where Ms. Hina has successfully gotten Laura to read her first word, the sheer joy on Laura’s face, and the way her father reacts when he sees his daughter hugging Ms. Hina, will bring you to tears.

I realize that there are many for whom this will not be a typical movie as it is more like a collection of character pieces that have been workshopped and threaded together than a traditional narrative. For others, the grainy, low light, unstable and lurching camera cinematography will turn them off. And of course there will be others who will not like the politics or attitude of the film. I suppose that this film isn’t for them. It’s for the mass of people, unrecognized, unheralded, slogging through life, eking out existences day to day, contending with the scraps many of us leave behind. Yet their lives are just as important, just as bright, just as vital, and just as beautiful as the subjects of more traditional films. Scarborough deserves to be embraced for all of its denizens, not just the Mike Myerses and Barenaked Ladies of this world – not just for its success stories. It truly was incredible to see apartment buildings and strip malls that I recognized, and I know other people in the audience felt this too. One of the scenes was shot two blocks away from where my parents live, and where I too lived when I was in high school. There’s something about seeing both the locations and the people one has known, heretofore underrepresented, specifically shown in a work of art. I feel that this film should not be judged only as a film but as an accomplishment – under these terms, it excels. It is for people who watch the Up documentary series and feel for those from the working classes. It is for those of us who miss The Wire for what it brought to TV. It is for those who live in Scarborough and honorary Scarberians alike.

Scarborough was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2022.

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