Despite some laugh-outloud one-liners and sitcom vignettes, Grown Up Movie Star (2009) [official site] is a wholly uneven film whose less-than-credible narrative achieves a measure of traction through some credible performances, most notably Tatiana Maslany (who won a Special Jury prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival). Her characterization of out-of-control teenager Ruby smolders and glints with what Pam Grady has described as a "precocious but extremely naïve" sexuality. But for as much as this film wants to explore the minefield of a young girl's sexual awakening, it ends up being more farce than fact, and more abusive than affectionate. This is certainly not a film to argue a case for gay parenting. Doe-eyed Shawn Doyle, who plays Ruby's dad Ray, negotiates an internalized homophobia through one note—which is first loud, then louder—and though I can appreciate director Adriana Maggs' narrative device of aligning Ruby's sexual awakening alongside her father's, I'm left ambivalent by how they both act out, hurting themselves and all those around them. How can you like people like this? It's made problematic only because, at heart, I believe Maggs hopes we will like them.
As Jason Alexander writes for Eye Weekly: "The final reel's pile-up of clumsy contrivances and teary heart-to-hearts undermines the raw verve of the best scenes, such that the film's riskiest moments end up seeming sensationalistic." Jillian Butler, writing for The House Next Door, writes that the film relies "too readily on the forgiving nature of a family's bond" even as she contextualizes the film within Newfoundland's cinematic output and its wisdom in weighing "the afflictions that haunt all small towns: narrow minded neighbors, wasted potential and bored misbehavior." John Anderson nails it at Variety: "Maggs impresses less with her Newfoundland story than with her handling of actors. Scenes between two or more characters ... possess an effortless grace and realism."
Along with Maslany's breakout performance, the boyfriends are winning. I enjoyed the supporting turns of Mark O'Brien as Ruby's American boyfriend Will and Steve Cochrane as Ray's love interest. As Ray's crippled best friend Stuart, Jonny Harris likewise has some beautifully nuanced moments but his performance is hobbled by absurd scriptural demands. When Ruby's younger sister Rose (Julia Kennedy) shows up at his door wanting her headshots taken, and he follows through by photographing her in provocative positions, it destroys any sympathy you might have felt for Stuart's frustration, renders him criminally ridiculous, and launches these unfortunate events into a melodramatic stratosphere best suited for mid-afternoon television.
The film's Frameline audience accepted the film's California premiere with open arms, however, and director Maggs and her leading actor Doyle took to the Castro stage to engage them. Commenting on the Castro's huge auditorium, Doyle remarked: "We're honored and very happy to be here tonight. This is a little tiny movie we made in northern Canada about a year and two or three months ago on a shoestring budget, literally in the cold, and we dragged our asses back and forth between sets whenever the weather gave us a break and the fact that we've had such a success with the movie and that we're here today is really special for us."
Asked how Maggs secured Shawn Doyle for the role of Ray and what it was about the role that attracted him, Maggs responded that she suckered him into doing the film because Doyle is originally from Newfoundland. A smattering of applause from the audience caused Doyle to shout out if there were Newfoundlanders in the crowd. "Frankly, for me," Doyle answered, "I read a bunch of scripts on both sides of the border—I live in L.A. right now—and the script was one of the best scripts I've ever read. Adriana's themes were well explored but at the same time the humor really jumped off the page and had a kind of authenticity that I remember from my youth in Newfoundland. Often times in Canada our films try to be too many things—too universal to appeal to places other than Canada—and I felt Grown Up Movie Star was specific to where it's from. As soon as I read it, I was on board.
"What was challenging to me about the role was that I've never played a Newfoundlander before. I have to tell you, I was really scared to go back and do it. I've been offered a number of films back in Newfoundland. I'm not sure if there are areas in the States that have a similar kind of issue; but—once you leave Newfoundland—you're branded as someone who's left. You're out. You become, like, grand and you've moved on somewhere else. It's a betrayal. I had a lot of fear over the years about going back to do anything and trying to portray a Newfoundlander and feeling as if I would be an imposter. So, first and foremost, there was that. The notion that we all have things inside that we can't communicate to other people and that we all feel locked inside our own prisons, whatever they are—obviously this was one particular thing—that was just very resonant with me.
"To be candid with a bunch of gay men in the audience here, I've played a number of gay characters in the past; but, for some reason, I was really nervous about some of these scenes. As I shot them, they were no big deal to do obviously, and I was doing them with the director's husband; her boyfriend at the time. I realized I had focused all the fear I had of coming back and trying to be a Newfoundlander in front of this Newfoundland crew into the notion of playing these scenes."
As for casting 24-year-old Tatiana Maslany in her award-winning turn as Ruby, Maggs mentioned that Doyle had worked with her on a previous film and recommended her. Maslany was the only one in the cast who was not a Newfoundlander; but, when she was auditioning, Maggs was amazed with how Maslany "used every corner of the room." She regretted that the actress could not be with them for the Castro screening but she was filming in Morocco, playing the role of Mary. Maggs wondered if she used her performance in Grown Up Movie Star as an audition reel for that role? Doyle added: "We had really wanted to cast the role locally and Adriana had a very specific idea of what that character should be; but, at the end of the day, that's an incredibly huge role for someone to take on. You need a brilliant actor. You need someone that has a tool box that can spring the full range of what's required. It was really clear that we had to hire an actor as opposed to casting an authentic Newfoundlander."
As for the audience's ear adjusting to the film's thick Newfoundlander accents, Maggs observed that Maslany certainly didn't have that accent and, for that matter, most young people in Newfoundlander no longer have that accent because they're a YouTube generation who have watched too much American television. When they were auditioning young women for the role of Ruby, they asked them to do the Newfoundland accent and most of them couldn't, even though they'd been raised there. In their pursuit of acting careers, most of them have endeavored to lose their accents. The older generation, however, have definitely retained this strong accent influenced by the Irish. Maggs quipped that they try to use the accent in Canada; otherwise, they can't get hired.
Maggs was complimented on exploring a young girl's sexual awakening without relying on on-screen nudity, and she confirmed that she never wanted to make a film about a teen exploring her sexuality while exploiting a young actress. "That's so easy to do," she complained, "you could make the movie horrifying if you wanted to; but, I was more interested in exploring the psychological truths of the situation and not, y'know, boobs."
Cross-published on Twitch.