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Review: Scarborough

February 25, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Shot in the Kingston-Galloway area of the East Toronto suburb that it is named for, Scarborough is an intimate yet expansive character drama that showcases the lives of several struggling families in a part of the city that is too often ignored.

Based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Catherine Hernandez, who adapts her own book for the screen, the film mainly focuses on the experience of three kids growing up in low-income housing around the area, with the narrative unfolding over the seasons that make up a single school year.

Bing (Liam Diaz) is a quiet, artistic Filipino boy. Struggling to make ends meet away from his abusive father, his mother Edna (Ellie Posadas) gets a job working at a nail salon, where he starts hanging out after school. Sylvie (Mekiya Fox) is a high-spirited Indigenous girl whose mother Marie (Cherish Violet Blood) is trying to juggle caring for her and younger son Johnny (Felix Jedi Ingram Isaac), who is showing signs of autism. They are living in one of the area’s low-rise motels and struggling to find permanent housing.

Then there’s Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), a very shy young girl who is clearly suffering from trauma and barely says a word. She is being jostled between her drug addicted mother Jessica (Kristen MacCulloch) and her emotionally unstable, at times volatile father Cory (Conor Casey), who has no real clue how to parent her and is prone to lashing out in frustration.

The three kids come together through an Ontario Reads literacy program at the school run by a kind social worker named Miss Hina (Aliya Kanani). She is in contact via email with a downtown supervisor (Cate McKim) who wants her to take a less active role in the lives of the kids, discouraging her from providing extra food and time, but Miss Hina remains undeterred in trying to make a difference in the community through the morning drop-in. We watch as Bing and Sylvie become friends, and Laura starts to blossom and open up around Miss Hina.

The film is quite lengthy at 138 minutes, juggling several different characters and storylines. But co-directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson find a way to make it work, with the three main kids providing a steady, engaging through-line. The film has a very raw and real feel to it, but also moments of genuine, crowd-pleasing uplift. It’s a tricky balance that the filmmakers manage to pull off, with the child’s eye view vantage point offering a unique window into inner-city poverty. This is heightened by Williamson’s intimate, handheld camerawork which gives the film a gritty authenticity.

The film is carried by incredibly genuine performances from the young leads, who all capture our hearts in their own ways and make us care about these characters. If these kids are the heart of the film, then in many ways Miss Hina is the soul of it. She is a character who radiates true goodness, but Kanani also still allows her to feel like a fully fleshed out character through her wonderful, quietly nuanced performance, whether responding gracefully to moments of bigoted hostility from Laura’s dad, or standing her ground against her bureaucratic supervisor.

Yes, Scarborough is a heavy film in a lot of ways, with its often uncompromising depictions of poverty, neglect, childhood abuse, and even unspeakable tragedy making it a tough and highly emotional one to watch. But it’s also one filled with little glimmers of hope, from the small acts of kindness shown by Miss Hina and others in the community, to the profound moment of a child learning how to read their first word. Especially as someone who was born in Scarborough, and able to recognize many of the locations that the characters walk through, I found it really hit close to home.

It’s a film that has the power to connect with audiences in a big way (it was third runner-up for the TIFF People’s Choice Award last year, following big Oscar contenders Belfast and The Power of the Dog), not only depicting the challenges of Scarborough, but also the diversity, resilience and even beauty of it as well. The result is a compelling, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting tribute to this area of the city that gives the film its name.

Scarborough is opening today in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and at Cineplex Cinemas Morningside in Scarborough. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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