Opening just a week after Hot Docs ended, it’s opening night film arrives back at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema for it’s proper theatrical run. First time feature filmmaker and Guelph, Ontario native Shawney Cohen’s The Manor documents his sometimes strained and tenuous relationship to his family. Who doesn’t want to strangle a family member every now and then? What makes it harder for Cohen is that he seems like the well adjusted almost black sheepish member of a family of strip club owners and operators.
At the titular roadhouse and adjacent fleabag hotel that attracts mostly addicts and lowlifes, things have been on a bit of a downward spiral not just out in front – where fights and bizarre incidents like car fires have become sadly regular occurrences – but behind the scenes, as well.
Shawney, a former computer design artist, tends bar and tries to hold his unstable family together simply by not doing anything stupid. He documents them and their imperfections with the loving detail that only a family member that truly cares about those around them can do. This isn’t a cynical film about hating your family. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It’s about loving until it absolutely hurts you seeing how they act.
Father and owner Roger has an exceptionally dangerous and obvious obesity problem, while his sweet and literally withering mother suffers in relative silence with an eating disorder and depression issues of her own. Younger brother Sammy is a manager and dating one of the talents, much to his father’s chagrin. Also just around the periphery is his dad’s shady assistant Bobby, who might not have shaken his junkie and drug dealing past.
Cohen isn’t afraid to capture his family looking like jerks, and refreshingly the results aren’t always played for comedy. It brings out the real essence of these people. Cohen’s closeness to his subject is the film’s true ace in the hole. This specific film couldn’t have been made by anyone else. In someone else’s hands none of these characters would have been understandable as people, not even Cohen himself who is clearly uncomfortable when he’s forced into being the subject of certain sections of the film.
It does seem a bit like a long form pilot for a reality television show rather than a proper documentary at times. The almost complete lack of an ending kind of speaks to a project that really didn’t have too much on an idea where it was going when it started. Then again, that wonky ending still speaks to how much The Manor and the family behind it means to Cohen. It’s a part of his life that he doesn’t want to let go of just yet, and he might never want to no matter the awkwardness. The fact that the film even exists makes it likeable and at moments outright heartbreaking to watch.