While heavy-handed, this Canadian social drama hits home

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | Feb. 10, 2022

Opens Feb. 25
3.5 out of 5

Canadian cinema’s go-to genre remains the coming-of-age comedy (disenfranchised teens? cottage country? heaps of Canadiana? SOLD!). But social drama has been gaining momentum. Last year, Beans captured the 78-day standoff in 1990 between Mohawk and government forces at Oka, QC, warts and all. While it could’ve used some polishing, a sequence featuring dozens of bigots pelting the protagonist’s family car with rocks was more visceral than anything I’ve seen in the MCU.

Scarborough (adapted from a 2017 novel by Catherine Hernandez) also uses non-professional actors to portray a slow-burning crisis — in this case, children at risk. The film paints a damning picture of Canada’s safety nets undermined by bureaucracy, racial tensions and some awful, awful parenting.

At the film’s centre are three kids attending a literacy program at a community centre in the much-maligned east Toronto suburb. Bing (Liam Diaz) is the son of a battered single mother. The proverbial “good kid”, Bing has a religious streak and is smart enough to be considered for a gifted program. He’s also bullied mercilessly, enough to put a dent in his otherwise cheery demeanour. His best friend is Sylvie (Essence Fox), a fiercely protective girl coming to terms with a disabled father and troubled brother with an undiagnosed condition.

While Bing and Sylvie’s stories are affecting, the one that elevates the film from cloying to harrowing is Laura’s. The daughter of a heroin addict mother and prejudiced father with anger issues, Laura (Anna Claire Beitel) has the perpetually haunted expression of someone who has seen way too much way too soon. Expressions of love are wholly absent in her life, and when she finally connects with the kindly Muslim coordinator at the community centre, her dad’s bigotry ruins it for her.

Scarborough walks the line between hard-hitting social realism and misery fix, not always successfully. Directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson are effective at portraying urban decay, but their tendency to state the obvious and overplay the stereotypes (the indifferent bureaucrat, the jaded physician, the white lady who is a total Karen) become a bit grating after a while.

However, the film’s raw qualities and earnest performances pack an undeniable punch. The Laura storyline is a straight-up tearjerker, and looms large over the other plotlines.

At two hours and 16 minutes, Scarborough overstays its welcome, probably because the author also adapted the screenplay (you gotta kill your darlings!). Following the harrowing climax, the film seems at a loss on how to end. It flails aimlessly for half hour and ends on an uplifting note that feels at odds with everything that came before. But for a few glorious minutes, I was reminded of Rossellini.