Contemporary World Cinema
At TIFF 2014 I reviewed Toronto filmmaker Pat Mills’ debut feature Guidance, and noted that while it was a little rough around the edges, it certainly secured my attention for whatever he did next. So when I heard that his second film, Don’t Talk To Irene, would be playing at this year’s festival, I figured I’d better make good on my word, and I’m glad I did.
Newcomer Michelle McLeod plays Irene, the most picked-on girl in school. The other kids are relentless, but this doesn’t curb her desire to become a cheerleader, like her mother was, who doesn’t treat her much better than her classmates do. When Irene gets suspended and must do community service at a retirement home, she finds herself making friends for the first time, and recruits some of the residents to help with a dance routine for a talent show.
While the story of a high school “loser” triumphing in spite of bullies and societal norms might be a familiar one, you’ve probably never seen one where the protagonist’s spirit guide is under-appreciated 90s icon Geena Davis. Irene communicates unironically with Davis via a League of Their Own poster that hangs on her ceiling, and Geena doles out some great advice. This isn’t going to be her Birdman or anything, but it’s the perfect little bit of nostalgia with an actor whom I feel like we all miss (even if we don’t realize it) and would like to see more of. Recently Davis has been more involved in activism, launching the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2007, which makes her an even more fitting role model for someone like Irene.
Mills’ sophomore feature is very much a continuation of the work he began with Guidance. With the high school setting, he once again finds new talent, particularly with McLeod as his lead. Mills appears in a couple scenes as a flask-carrying teacher, a clear nod to his Guidance character, and I don’t think anyone would have minded if he’d put himself in a few more. With veteran cinematographer Paul Sarossy, it’s more polished than his first film, but it ends up looking a little generic. I kind of missed the “rough around the edges” look of his last work, which felt much more rebellious and punk. Sure he has senior citizens being inappropriate and cussing up a storm, but the shock value of that wears off pretty quickly. There’s still some edge to Irene, but it’s not a hard one, which should make it much more accessible to a wider audience.
All this to say that Don’t Talk to Irene should win over audiences, even if it feels familiar at times. It has a very wholesome, positive message, and it’s fun to see these characters outcast from different ends of society (the young and the old) come together. Even if you see where it’s going, it’s hard not to be won over by its uplifting ending.