TIFF 2020: Wildfire Review

Knock-out performances from the film's leads anchor the story about a generational struggle with mental health

Director Cathy Brady’s directorial feature debut is a haunting and raw look at the shared trauma of two sisters in an Irish border town.

After vanishing from their town a year ago, Kelly (Nika McGuigan) shows up on sister Lauren’s (Nora-Jane Noone) doorstep, unannounced. Born just over a year apart, these sisters are opposite pillars of adult life with Kelly’s wild ways conflicting with Lauren’s stable married life and factory job. However, Kelly’s reemergence into Lauren’s life stirs up repressed memories and trauma set against the larger context of coming-of-age in a post-conflict society in Northern Ireland.

Brady’s Wildfire is a tale about how the past impacts the present, both with respect to individual stories and in a larger cultural context. With Brexit disrupting the border stabilized after so many years of The Troubles, Wildfire is as relevant as ever in its presentation of the lasting effects from generations of conflict. Despite its Northern Ireland setting, the film’s themes are wholly universal and relatable to any audience, especially the conversation it creates around mental health.

As a director, Brady coaxes emotional and ferociously raw performances from her two leads but the film is a bittersweet success; star Nika McGuigan died from cancer in 2019 after first being diagnosed with leukemia in 1997.

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Her performance here is strong and affecting, as is Noone’s. While McGuigan gets the showier role as the erratic wild child Kelly, Noone’s more tempered restraint perfectly balances her screen partner in a story that is, above all, about the unwavering bond between sisters. Together, they make a formidable and mesmerizing pair as sisters who struggle to break free from the past.

With Wildfire, Brady cements herself as one to watch for her deft and sensitive take on the issues surrounding mental illness. While we eagerly await her next feature project, check out her two-season series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, a comedy-drama about the unravelling friendship between two young women (played by McGuigan and Seana Kerslake). All six episodes are currently streaming on Netflix Canada.

Wildfire screens as part of TIFF on Sept. 17 on TIFF Digital Cinema and on Sept. 18 with a physical screening at Lightbox.

 

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