The Canadian indie drama Algonquin is a perfect example of a rare kind of film: the kind of idea that sounds terrible on paper or in a pitch, but one that works just fine in practice. There are some slightly wonky moments here and there and it’s undoubtedly three very different films in one 90 minute package, but writer/director Jonathan Hayes and his splendid casting choices pull it off to create a vibrant and emotional story about familial legacy that’s part Wes Anderson styled tale of a family living in the shadow of an icon, part Guy Maddin styled look at how family, setting, and psychology shape a person, and a healthy dose of James Brooks’ on point observational humour.
Mark Rendall stars as Jake, a struggle teacher and frustrated amateur writer who has lived the bulk of his life in the shadow of his famous, often absentee travel writer father. Leif (veteran Canadian actor Nicholas Campbell) has once again returned into Jake’s life to ask of him a favour: to help kick start his career by co-authoring a history of the Algonquin region while they stay at the family’s run down cabin in the woods. Before Jake can regret the decision too deeply, Leif passes away. Determined to finish the book they started, Jake returns North, but Leif’s current wife (Victoria Sanchez) and her young son (Michael Levinson) turn out to be the inheritors of an estate that should have remained in the proper family. Together at the cabin, the three of the people most touched by Leif’s absence being to find ways of dealing with their loss and the secrets he left behind.
Hayes’ film follows a very deliberate three act structure where each act comprises a different film. The first act is strictly about Jake dealing with his mom (Sheila McCarthy) and dad. The second is about the differences between Leif and the woman who’s now his stepmother. The final is about Jake learning to let go and accept the very legacy that his father left him, for better or worse. They’re very different and complex themes to have occupy single sections of the film, and things do lag a bit in the final act with Levinson’s character uneasily flip-flopping between smart and precocious and the arrival of a nasty comedic relief bumbling park ranger not adding very much to the film’s climax. But Hayes keeps it all together by making things feel organic rather than forced.
Each act flows seamlessly into the next without feeling jarring. Even after Leif’s death becomes the main inciting incident, the film proceeds with his funeral exactly how life would go on. He wasn’t around much to begin with, so naturally his funeral seems bittersweet to everyone, but deep down it’s handled as just another day. These characters all have to build to either missing him or being done with him for good. All of them, except for Jake, are in denial to some degree about who Leif was to them and none of them are searching for answers. Jake knows pretty well what Leif was to him, and yet he has to look for other reasons as to why his life hasn’t taken off the way it should have. It’s gorgeously (and at times quite inventively) shot and it’s edited together with great precision to a point where a wealth of backstory isn’t needed. The important moments are there on screen and most of them don’t even involve the characters having to interact with each other.
Rendall does a wonderful job in the lead, even though it’s a performance that in personal appearance and theatrics isn’t designed to be flashy. Jake is a less that extraordinary everyman who has universally relatable thoughts and desires, but he just so happens to be the product of a famous egotist and a woman who doesn’t seem like she ever figured out what she wanted in life or why she wanted it to begin with. Campbell puts in some of the finest work of his career in the film’s opening third, relishing the chance to play a past his prime blowhard who has been coasting on his former glories for decades. Leif is a magnetic personality, but a lot like an alcoholic drunk on his own fame or that one guy who keeps reliving that one meaningful touchdown he scored in a high school football game. In the middle of all of this are the women in his life, but both of whom have different reactions. McCarthy plays a woman who knows Leif is capable of great, warm, and loving gestures, but that deep down his track record has always been to screw things up. Meanwhile, Sanchez’s recent widower seems perplexed and hurt for Leif old family since she seemingly got the best of the old man’s final years.
In the end, Algonquin asks quite nicely of the audience what they truly think of familial nostalgia and if they truly buy into it. It’s a deep question and this is certainly a great family to examine such a question through. It looks like the film takes on more than it can chew, but it’s pretty easy to swallow, and it stays consistently engaging on a narrative and emotional level.