‘I love movies’ review: Isaiah Lehtinen helms independent coming-of-age film

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TIFF: This detailed film about a young cinephile working in a video store offers nostalgic laughs and genuine heart in equal measure.

For Lawrence Kweller (Isaiah Lehtinen), the 17-year-old cinephile protagonist of “I Like Movies”, the title of the film is not just an observation. It’s also armor, a versatile excuse and a serious attempt at connection. The connection is not easy for Lawrence, a situation that is only partially his fault. He’s brooding, insensitive, condescending, stubbornly delusional, and even a little sexist (like many geeky boys his age and era, he finds it hard to believe that girls can like movies too). But he’s also smart, ambitious, hyper-articulate, and as vulnerable as a baby bird fallen from its nest.

Lawrence exists on a continuum that also includes Max Fischer from “Rushmore” and Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson from “Lady Bird,” but he’s a more realistic character than either. All teenagers think they’re special, and it’s grossly unfair that the world hasn’t recognized their gifts yet. But “I Like Movies” is too grounded a film to entertain these fantasies. Making her feature film debut, writer-director Chandler Levack pulled off a rare trick here by making a warm, safe film without coddling its protagonist.

“I Like Movies” is set in the very particular setting of Burlington, Ontario in the winter and spring of 2003. The pitfalls of the period are minimal, and knowing; a sign that Levack shares at least some of his main character’s obsession, the passage of time is marked by the titles spinning on the shelves of Sequels, the video store where he gets a job at the start of the film. Working at Sequels is a dream for Lawrence, who – after an initial humiliation from his manager Alana (Romina D’Ugo), who informs him that he also has to sell the DVDs of the films he doesn’t like – channeled all his creative energy into creating a “Staff Pick” shelf for the store. He also volunteers to work until midnight on Saturdays, because it’s not like he has better things to do.

For moviegoers of a certain age, the video store scenes in “I Like Movies” will be painfully nostalgic. (This reviewer spent time at a similar store in college and was a bit verklempt in the scene where Alana shows Lawrence how to rotate the soda cooler so the newest bottles are in the back.) And the film begs only for the pause-and-screenshot treatment, with insert shots documenting Lawrence’s weekly commute from the Sequels and prominently placed marquees and whiteboards listing the latest releases. A missing VHS copy of “Wild Things” is a major plot point. Two characters go to see “Punch-Drunk Love” together. Levack slides the camera over the new Sequels post wall, betting his audience wants to browse those shelves as badly as his characters.

This conscious construction of Easter eggs is one of the film’s most affected qualities. The other comes from occasional peaks in the comedic tone of relaxed and natural to a more sketch-comedy type of over-the-top goofiness. The whole film could be like that, in more cruel and less empathetic hands. That it doesn’t is a testament to both Levack’s script — the film embellishes its sarcasm and downplays its drama — and Lehtinen’s performance as Lawrence. As he’s forced to consider the fact that he’s unlikely to go to NYU and become Todd Solondz’s favorite student, Lehtinen knocks down the walls of his character to reveal the scared and emotionally unstable boy behind the scarves and jargon from movie magazines.

The connection between the director and the star in “I Like Movies” is very intuitive; depending on the context, subtle changes in Lehtinen’s posture and facial expressions can serve as punch lines or punches. A scene where Lawrence has a panic attack in the back room of Sequels, sobbing and swallowing air as he hastily changed into his maroon polo shirt, is heartbreaking enough to make the viewer forget he’s is about the same character whose “buuuut mooooooommmis squeaky enough to be used as a weapon of war. It’s a remarkable performance from the young actor, who has worked in television for a decade but is making his debut here as a leading man.

The chemistry and dynamic between Lehtinen and D’Ugo are also minimally affected, until a well-meaning but ill-calibrated #MeToo monologue nearly shatters the illusion of relatability. It’s not that things like what happened to Alana before she started working at Sequels don’t happen in real life. It’s just that the fact that it happened to the manager of the Canadian suburban video store where a naive cinephile in need of some serious humility just happens to be working is a bit neater of a plot device than this movie otherwise unpretentious builds normally. However, it gives needed context to Alana’s abrasive, no-nonsense personality, just as the cleverly cast backstory of Lawrence’s conspicuously absent father adds layers to her obnoxious frailty.

The film’s other major plot, about the gradual dissolving of Lawrence’s relationship with his best friend Matt (Percy Hynes White), is also tidy, hitting all the usual emotional and structural beats for stories about two teenage losers who find each other. separate as they enter adulthood. . Although seemingly the “A” story of the film, it doesn’t miss as much as it could when it also fades into the background. However, this aspect of the film is also endearing, especially a scene where Matt and Lawrence play their favorite game on what they’ve dubbed “Reject’s Night”: making up and acting out their introductions as “cast members” in an imaginary opening credits. for “Saturday Night Live.”

“I Like Movies” is not one of those movies that grabs attention by aggressively breaking the rules. Levack understands the limits of what she has to work with for her first feature – it was a very low budget project, with Levack citing a figure of $125,000 in a recent TIFF interview – and wisely decides to work within them. Backed by strong writing and even stronger performances, the result is a film that’s small but not light, sweet but not sickening, and the kind of thing that can make even a cynical critic love movies again.

Grade: B+

I Love Movies” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Visit Media has acquired worldwide distribution rights.

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