Before I Change My Mind Review: Those Queer ’80s

2023 Available Light Film Festival

Before I Change My Mind opens with Robin (Vaughan Murrae) walking into gym class. It’s Robin’s first day at school in Edmonton after moving from fancy-schmancy Washington. The gym teacher says hello and advises Robin to take a seat. As Robin turns to the class, the boys are all seated on one side of the gym. The girls sit on the other side. The kids stare up as Robin strolls down the aisle, foreshadowing a question that will arise in the schoolyard: “Are you a boy or a girl?” Clad in a rainbow patterned beatnik sweater, Robin’s sense of gender identity is wise for a kid in 1987 Alberta. Robin confidently strides past the students and sits firmly, comfortably in the middle.

Director Trevor Anderson makes a fun and fabulous feature debut with Before I Change My Mind by offering an irreverently funny coming of age tale. What begins as a query of gender identity evolves into a richer study of identity itself. Anderson doesn’t apply pronouns or labels. He keeps the film firmly in the lived experience of 1987 Alberta, a time where kids—grown-ups even—didn’t have the language or culture of open-mindedness to process gender identity outside blue and pink. It’s refreshing to see such a progressively queer film emerge from stodgy Alberta.

At school, Robin takes a shine to Carter (Dominic Lippa), a boisterous lad who struts around the schoolyard like he owns the place. As Robin shimmies up to Carter during music class, a spark of tension has them both fluttering. Back home, Robin’s square but sensitive dad Daniel (Matthew Rankin, director of The Twentieth Century in which Anderson appeared) offers a loving environment for Robin just to be Robin. However, Daniel’s not much of a role model when it comes to love.

 

A Shot of ’80s’ Pink

Flashbacks of Robin’s  abusive mother punctuate the film as Robin encounters bullies on and off the schoolyard. Robin’s especially triggered in Carter’s presence. Carter lacks Robin’s confidence and lashes out at others, as kids often do. He’s particularly mean to Tony (Jhztyn Contado), the Filipino kid who works at the Chinese restaurant. The kids at school call Tony “Marnold” and tease him for standing out from the pack. Robin inevitably joins in, trying to impress Carter by butching it up.

While the film captures the nuances of trying to fit in when one’s sense of self doesn’t even seem to fit right, Before I Change My Mind has a playfully insightful eye for details as Anderson delivers some hilarious nuggets by reflecting on his upbringing and the squareness of it all. I couldn’t help giggle any time the music teacher Ms. Pahornyk (Kristin Johnston) waltzed by the “Fingering Chart” on her blackboard. (Hee hee!) Ditto the Catholic ornaments that adorn the kids’ houses, making for make-out environs worthy of The Fabelmans.

The film doesn’t let adults off the hook, either, for their juvenile shenanigans. Daniel has sobering encounters in the dating game, including a terrible date with Anne (Shannon Blanchet). Annie might take her fashion cues from Tammy Faye, and her drinking tips, too, but Before I Change My Mind bridges to its unexpected climax with the adults splitting over a Chinese dinner spoiled by alcoholism. This thread with the parents illustrates how people sometimes need a word to pinpoint things niggling inside of them. Labels can be helpful, especially as Robin observes when they are or aren’t productive.

 

Mary Magdalene: Video Star

At the same time, Anderson invites the kids to get fabulous by enlisting in the local community théatre’s production of Mary Magdalene: Video Star. The number is a super-funky synth opera of 1980s’ excess. Anderson, who plays the théatre director, stages a hilarious spin on Jesus Christ Superstar that features laugh-a-minute numbers and the sexiest Jesus since Benedetta. As the kids blow their saxes in the Biblical marching band, their budding friendship collides with the musical’s new star, Izzy (Lacey Oake). Izzy catches Carter’s eye, while she finds herself smitten by Robin’s sensitivity. Anderson unfolds something of a love triangle as tension flares between Robin and Carter as they vie for attention with Izzy as a go-between.

The musical is the centrepiece of the film and everyone clearly has a ball with it, especially Anderson. Combining video art and slow cinema to punish the in-film audience, Mary Magdalene: Video Star is riotously funny. So too is Before I Change My Mind as it finds a sweet spot as the Glee Club love child of Hamlet 2 and I Like Movies. Much like Chandler Levack’s coming-of-age-in-boring-Canada period romp, this film is about finding oneself through art and misfit toys. Anderson’s film should especially appeal to fans of Levack’s spot-on comedy. It’s good to see a new generation of Canadian talent that’s so confidently weird. Like Levack’s debut, Anderson confidently delivers on the promise of his shorts and deserves similar attention.

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A Breakout Performance by Murrae

Meanwhile, the cast is all working on Anderson’s brainwave. They straddle the quirky comedy well, finding the right tone to invite a wide audience into the story while keeping things unapologetically queer. Murrae gives a remarkably introspective performance as Robin navigates the new environment and relationships. There’s an inquisitive gaze in Murrae’s eyes as Robin observes human behaviour in school and out. Robin’s always taking stock of how people act, dress, and perform. Anderson leads Robin on a journey of self-discovery towards embracing all things weird. The film does the same, creating an environment of unbridled panache. Anderson conjures a period piece of true ’80s’ gaudiness. Big hair, flamboyantly awful clothes, and euphoric synth music carve a decidedly queer space in this era of conservatism. It’s a safe space, and a damn fun one, too.

While Before I Change My Mind takes a dark turn in its final act, Anderson doesn’t lose sight of the humour in Robin’s journey. This ride defiantly marches to the beat of its own drum—a synth pop drum machine, to be exact.

 

Before I Change My Mind screened at the 2023 Available Light Film Festival.

Check out more from the festival in Rachel West’s report from Whitehorse.



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