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TIFF 2023: Seagrass, Fitting In, Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person

While the Toronto International Film Festival is filled with highlights from Hollywood and international filmmakers alike, it's also a great showcase for homegrown, Canadian talent. This year, I caught up with three Canadian films that could not be more different in tone and share intriguing connective tissue. 

Set on the Pacific coast, writer/director Meredith Hama-Brown’s debut feature "Seagrass" turns reflections on her own racial identity into a raw and emotional drama about marriage, childhood, parenting, and this thorny thing we call family. Writer/director Molly McGlynn's sophomore feature "Fitting In" brings medical science into the coming-of-age genre as we follow a suburban teenage girl's journey toward accepting her new life after being diagnosed with a rare reproductive condition. Lastly, Québécoise writer/director Ariane Louis-Seize's darkly comedic debut “Vampire humaniste cherche suicidaire consentant (Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person)" centers on a despondent "teenage" vampire who has an aversion to killing human beings and the mounting pressure from her family to make her first kill.

Vaguely set in the 1990s, Meredith Hama-Brown’s hypnotic debut feature "Seagrass" opens with two sisters, 11-year-old Stephanie (Nyha Breitkreuz) and six-year-old Emmy (Remy Marthaller), playing on the deck of a ferry, the wind blowing wildly through their hair. It's summertime, and the girls are enthralled, if slightly terrified, by the glistening, rushing waters below them. Eventually, the two tire of their games, asking their parents for some ice cream money. Their mother, Judith (Ally Maki), who is Japanese Canadian, is hesitant at first but eventually acquiesces to the girls' demands after their white father, Steve (Luke Roberts), suggests dinner won't be for a while. Though seemingly innocuous, these moments lay the groundwork for the intricacies of their family dynamic, a unit that is beginning to fray.

They're not on their way to a typical family vacation. Instead, Judith and Steve are attending group therapy sessions to work on their strained marriage while their girls play with the children of other attendees. Still grieving the death of her mother months earlier, Judith now has doubts about the choices she's made in building this family and the Japanese traditions she has let lay fallow. Maki's performance is a masterclass in layering tension; her anger is always slightly boiling underneath the surface, erupting in fits and starts that are especially disorienting for her young children. Roberts plays Steve with a perfectly calibrated cluelessness that masks a deeper hurt even he doesn't quite understand. The two befriend another couple, Carol (Sarah Gadon) and Pat (Chris Pang), who initially seem to have a perfect life but whose cracks are more cleverly hidden.

As the adults work through addressing their complex issues, the girls are left to their own devices, exploring seaside caverns and making new friends. Yet, this is no golden summer retreat for them either. Not only do they experience passive racism from the other kids, but they also come to that first bitter realization that your sibling might not always be your best friend and your parents might not always be there for you when you need them. Hama-Brown achieves all of this emotional heft while striking a tone that quietly shifts between dulcet and tempestuous, like the waves in the sea. 

Shifting gears to solidly contemporary times, writer/director Molly McGlynn's coming-of-age comedy "Fitting In" begins with citations of Simone de Beauvoir and Diablo Cody, succinctly setting its strident and irreverently feminist tone before a single image enters the frame. Maddie Ziegler gives her best performance to date as Lindy, a sporty teen who has recently moved into her deceased grandmother's house with her single mom Rita (Emily Hampshire), a hot mess and self-described "bad therapist." Lindy spends her days chatting with her bestie and fellow track star Vivian (Djouliet Amara) about boys and sex and other teenage delights, shopping for makeup and tampons, and working out in the school gym. 

As things begin heating up between Lindy and her newfound boyfriend, Adam (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), she decides to visit the gynecologist to get on birth control despite not yet having her menstrual cycle. Things get complicated when Lindy is diagnosed with a rare reproductive abnormality called Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser syndrome, meaning she doesn't have a uterus or cervix, and her vaginal canal is shortened. Reeling from her diagnosis, Lindy pushes away her mom, Vivian, and even Adam as she tries to come to terms with her new normal. On a suggestion from a nurse, Lindy attends an LGBTQAI+ support group where she begins a flirty friendship with a non-binary teen named Jax (Ki Griffin). 

Ziegler's unique, slightly off-kilter screen presence fits wonderfully with the role as she careens between many conflicting emotions. She also creates stellar chemistry with everyone in her orbit; Ziegler's way of crafting specific vibes with each person effortlessly conveys how the many facets of a young person's developing personality can manifest differently with different people. With aplomb, Ziegler also tackles the medical and sexual aspects of the film, bringing the audience along with her on the journey through many extreme and often incredibly personal emotions.

Although the film is very much rooted in Lindy's experience dealing with this medical issue, McGlynn's script is never too bogged down with science talk. Instead, she finds humorous ways to educate Lindy—and, therefore, the audience—about the syndrome while also cleverly destigmatizing gynecological health and critiquing the coldness with which many (often male) doctors interact with their patients. "Fitting In" is a sweet, slightly angry clarion call for a world where frank conversations and abundant information about sexual, reproductive, and gynecological health become a more normalized part of the coming-of-age process. 

Another film about a girl with a peculiar medical condition, “Vampire humaniste cherche suicidaire consentant (Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person)," writer/director Ariane Louis-Seize’s deadpan horror comedy debut, is "What We Do In The Shadows" for people who grew up loving the soft goth girl vibes of Emily The Strange and Lydia Deetz.

Set in a version of Montreal where vampires live in nuclear families that look very much like human families, we first meet the titular humanist vampire Sasha as a "young" girl on her birthday. Her family has a surprise for her: a birthday clown. Except he's not just the entertainment; he's her cake, too. However, something within Sasha prevents her from taking a bite. One visit with a vampire doctor later, and it's established that rather than being compelled towards bloodsucking violence, Sasha's brain is wired for empathy. 

Not necessarily concerned with the nuts and bolts of the vampire world she's created, Louis-Seize instead focuses on its haunting and beautiful visuals. Always clad in black, the raven-haired Sasha (Sara Montpetit), now in her "teen" years, is subsumed by her state of perpetual darkness, with Louis-Seize often framing her so that only her face is lit. As Sasha makes her way through nocturnal Montreal, neon-lit grocery stores, diners, and bowling alleys contrast against the dim interiors of her vampire world. 

Concerned that she might be suicidal after finding a cookie in her bedroom (human food is fatal for vampires), her parents send her to live with her decidedly more vicious, bohemian cousin Denise (Noémie O’Farrell). Despondent, Sasha attends a group therapy session for depressives, where she meets a world-weary teenage boy named Paul (Félix-Antoine Bénard), who is more than willing to sacrifice his life for hers. 

In a feat akin to the tonal balance Goran Dukić struck in his dark rom-com "Wristcutters: A Love Story," Louis-Seize somehow turns this bleak premise into a sweet and tender romance. Like that film, there is an undercurrent of warmth here to the lead characters despite their dreary outlook. Montpetit and Bénard have an easy chemistry, finding strength in the unique rhythm they share underneath the awkwardness they both project toward the world. At its heart, Louis-Seize's film is a mordant hymn to teenage angst and the powerful feeling of finally connecting with someone who really gets you.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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