Picture Day, from writer and first time feature director Kate Melville, might be one of the sharpest and most perceptive looks at teenage sexuality and identity in quite some time. While there are moments that err on the side of the commercial viability of independent cinema, the twee and quirk are kept to a bare minimum in this character based high school flick where two young people look to each other for solace and direction with neither having any easy answers.
Claire (Tatiana Maslany) finds herself attempting to coast through a Grade 13 situation thanks to her lack of caring about school. She seems in no real hurry to graduate and her disdain for math, physical education, and 99.9% of the people around her doesn’t help her cause. She’s grown a thick skin and acerbic wit thanks to the constant slut shaming she endures on a daily basis, finding her only friend in a Freshman named Henry (Spencer Van Wyck). Claire used to babysit Henry back in the day, but thanks to bonding over weed and a shared past, they become close friends. Claire makes it her mission to reinvent Henry’s image as a gifted student and tries to get him laid, but she doesn’t realize that Henry has had a crush on her for quite some time and she’s too wrapped up in a dead end relationship with the frontman of a funk-glam band (Steven McCarthy) to notice.
The level of awkwardness here is spot on with the chemistry between Maslany and Van Wyck works very well. When they have to play the unlikely and somewhat ill fitting mentor and student roles to each other, the film gets the biggest laughs. Watching Claire try to reinvent her former young charge into a depressive, drug dealing man of mystery to try to get girls to notice him is priceless. Maslany plays up the attractive Cyrano role with equal parts brashness and aplomb, and it’s a credit to Van Wyck that he doesn’t play Henry like an emotionally stunted dullard. The fact that they seem like credible best friends makes the film’s casual dancing around the romantic issue have a lot more impact than if Melville cranked the awkwardness of the situation to 11 and went for over the top laughs all the time.
Melville’s script is incredibly sharp and with the help of Maslany’s excellent leading performance, the character of Claire is one of the best in recent Canadian cinema. She’s assured and arrogant in equal parts. One needn’t look further than her depressive mother sitting like a lovelorn lump on a couch to see where she gets her fear of being alone from. That fear leads to a sense of promiscuity that comes across not as a plea for attention, but as a symptom of something deeper. Her desires are her own sense of rebellion and she doesn’t want to see the only truly sympathetic, platonic ear she has to suffer the same fate she sees those around her falling into. She’s constantly railing against everyone and everything, but her biggest failing is that despite dating a 33-year old artist she’s constantly stunting her own growth to reassert a sense of intellectual superiority over everyone around her.
And yet, it’s so easy to want to see Claire succeed because she does have a heart beneath her misguided ways. She’s the teenager we all want to believe that we could have been at one point. Young, brash, resourceful, thoughtful, loyal, tough, and constantly able to get laid at the drop of a hat. It’s a fun role to play, but a hard one to get the tone right on. Go too far in one direction and Claire can become the female equivalent of Stifler from the American Pie films. Too far in the other direction and the movie loses even more sense of reality and becomes something sad and depressing. Maslany has the task of making Claire someone the audience wants to be around for more than five minutes at a time, and she turns Melville’s creation into something truly special.
Melville takes quite a while setting up the relationships of her characters before the audience sees what makes them tick. It’s still at heart a comedy about sexual relationships, but it’s far from being a dirty or conventional one. It’s probably as cringe inducing as some audience members would remember it being as a teenager. In a current slate full of mediocre documentaries, slight indie releases, and major summer blockbusters, Picture Day is practically an oasis for those wanting something different. It should also go almost without saying that it’s a darn fun movie to watch. That’s pretty important, too.