This wonderful little film may be my find of the festival. It got strong reviews at Sundance in 2009 and a brief run in cinemas in Toronto and Vancouver in June 2009. Since the distributor is ‘would be major’ E1, I hope that they will consider releasing it in the UK – at least on DVD. Its short length (under 90 mins) makes it an ideal candidate for a schools screening.
Written and directed by 35 year-old Torontonian David Bezmozgis, Victoria Day is a youth picture focusing on Ben Spektor, a 16 year-old in Toronto who is the star of his school (ice) hockey team. Victoria Day is a public holiday in Canada celebrated on the last Monday before May 24th. It is the period when the major hockey games leading to the Stanley Cup Finals are played and when firework displays take place. The film’s slight narrative brings together five events that signal Ben’s moment of realising what becoming an adult might mean.
Ben’s family are Russian-Canadians. His parents speak only Russian at home, but Ben always replies in English. Ben’s father is a passionate hockey fan and a big supporter of the iconic Wayne Gretzky (arguably the greatest Canadian sportsman of all time). Victoria Day in 1988 sees Gretzky leading the Edmonton Oilers into the Stanley Cup play-offs against the Boston Bruins. Father, of course, wants Ben to become a great hockey player. Ben’s team, the Toronto Red Wings are also in the play-offs of their local competition and linked to this is Ben’s encounter with team-mate Jordan, the school bully and loudmouth. Jordan goes missing and Ben is the last person to see him. Ben’s close friends are Noah and Sammy and they expect Ben to celebrate Victoria Day with a firework fight. But Ben also has his hormones to deal with. He is pushed into a date with the voracious Melanie, but his heart leads him towards Jordan’s younger sister Caley.
That’s the plot and you can probably insert the outcomes of each narrative strand yourself. But I doubt that you can foresee the sublety and sensitivity of the writing. Bezmozgis trained at film school in LA, but in Canada he is best known for a collection of highly-praised short stories (Natasha and Other Stories, 2004). These draw on his adolescence in Toronto in the 1980s. He’s from a Latvian Jewish background. I didn’t notice anything specifically Jewish in the film – although the subtitles for Ben’s father’s Russian on one occasion use the Yiddish word ‘schmuck’. One of the fascinating things for me about Canadian culture is the way that hockey becomes the melting-pot for the different ethnicities so that now there seem to be as many East Europeans as French-Canadians and Anglos in the Canadian national teams.
The film is not a mainstream teen picture. It offers some of the genre pleasures that we might expect but overall it is more literary and it doesn’t offer a neat resolution to each of Ben’s five pre-occupations. If I had to think of a similar picture it would be Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides novel, The Virgin Suicides. This isn’t such a leap since Bezmozgis and Eugenides share the same publisher and both were writing about adolescence in an earlier period. There is nothing in Victoria Day quite as dramatic as The Virgin Suicides and there isn’t the same other-worldly tone, but there is the same sensitivity and literary feel. In various interviews, Bezmozgis has said that the film just happens to be set in Toronto and that it could be anywhere in North America. I’m not in a position to dispute that statement. All I can say is that it seemed very Canadian to me, but that might just be that it is so clearly not a Hollywood genre film. The performances all worked for me and Bezmozgis certainly found a visual style to match his writing. A gem, I think. I hope more people get to see it. (In the UK it might get a 15 Certificate because of the dangerous ‘play’ with fireworks.)
The film’s website has some useful background on cast and crew.
Here’s the trailer and first David Bezmozgis’ introduction: