The creative team behind this coming-of-age comedy dive into real social problems

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

I Like Movies
Opens April 7

There’s a line in I Like Movies that lets you know from the outset this is not your traditional made-in-Canada coming-of-age movie. When asked why he wouldn’t consider a local film school, the protagonist — a hardcore teen cinephile — replies “because I don’t want to be a Canadian filmmaker. I want to be a filmmaker.”

It’s a funny line that packs a punch, and is probably the reason the Canadian Screen Awards snubbed I Like Movies despite a remarkable festival run and a Best Picture win at the Vancouver Film Critics Circle awards.

Set in Burlington, ON in 2003, I Like Movies revolves around Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen), a difficult 17-year-old obsessed with studying film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — never mind that his single mother can barely make ends meet, and he’s a less than stellar student who refuses to take advantage of opportunities available to him, like making his school’s graduation video.

To help pay his tuition at NYU, Lawrence realizes he needs to make money, so he gets a job at a video rental store. Despite his coarseness, limited work ethic and all around snobbery, his not much older manager Alana (Romina D’Ugo) finds in Lawrence a kindred spirit.

Writer/director (and reformed film critic) Chandler Levack puts together a compelling growing-up story, with plenty of laughs but also tremendous pathos. Lawrence suffers panic attacks when reality is too much to deal with and Alana has a dark backstory she hasn’t fully processed. As chance would have it breakout Wednesday alum, Percy Hynes White, has a pivotal role as Lawrence’s best friend slowly coming to the realization his buddy is extremely toxic.

I talked to Levack and Lehtinen the day the Canadian Screen Awards nominations came out. Given the traditional fare they chose to recognize (including David Cronenberg’s weakest film to date), it offered an interesting counterpoint to the movie’s main theme.

Chandler, can you unpack the “Canadian filmmaker” line for me?

Chandler Levack: There’s an internalized self-hatred in most Canadian artists. We never feel we’re good enough and growing up in the shadow of American culture doesn’t help. (Lawrence) doesn’t want to be a Canadian filmmaker because he believes it would limit his opportunities, value, and scope. I remember in high school going to Indigo and they had this giant mural “They’re Canadian, eh?” with a list of celebrity names like Ryan Gosling, Margaret Atwood, David Cronenberg. Even then you’re learning you’re only considered a worthy artist in Canada if you achieve American success.

Considering that Lawrence is a complicated character to follow —difficult, selfish, often unpleasant, how did you measure if you had gone too far?

CL: A friend of mine watched an early cut and told me I had to use those screaming matches more parsimoniously. Isaiah brought a lot of nuance and emotion to every take, but at times we needed him to tone it down so those screams were earned. A lot of times the lead in a movie is supposed to be a blank slate that anybody can relate to and not have any negative qualities because that would alienate the audience. I’d rather craft a more multidimensional character as opposed to a victim, a villain, or whatever.

Isaiah, there’s a moment in the movie in which the tone changes, when your boss springs her backstory on you. Your character seems unable to process the information he’s receiving. Can you tell me about your acting choices here?

Isaiah Lehtinen: We live in a patriarchy and young men don’t have any understanding of the reality women live in. I also wanted to portray a sweet naiveté. He’s ignorant and his ignorance is reinforced by the culture we live in, but I also wanted Lawrence to come from a place of innocence.

Given your background as a film critic, Chandler, did you have any insights regarding what to do and what to avoid when making I Like Movies?

CL: I’m a student of coming-of-age movies. I’ve been absorbing them rapaciously since I was eight years old. This means that for the longest part of my life all the culture I consumed was created by men. I was a weird 15 year-old with a giant picture of Woody Allen in my locker because he was someone I related to. As much as I Like Movies is a loving, empathetic character study of a film bro, it’s also talking about how they are shaped. When all of culture is made for you, movies are an easy way to feel emotions and empathize with people without actually having to take any emotional risks or truly getting to know anybody.

Isaiah, what was the most useful piece of direction you received?

IL: There wasn’t just one thing…

CL: Every day, just pearls of wisdom.

IL: It was a constant back-and-forth, so our sensibilities could find a common place.

CL: I don’t feel I directed him too much, he was always doing the right thing and had perfect continuity. But sometimes it was fun to throw directions at him to keep him on his toes.

I Like Movies was filmed during the height of Covid. And despite it being antithetical to “Canadian cinema”, the shoot featured many of the same hallmarks, from a micro-budget that forced the production team to cram more scenes into a  shooting day, to Levack even recruiting his parents to work as extras. “I would finish my day, go home, and discover I needed to learn ten pages for the next day,” Lehtinen recalled during the interview. “There was a lot of sleepless nights.”

Despite the challenges of the shoot, Levack already has a film ready to go, pending financing from Telefilm. “I read somewhere that the gap for female Canadian directors between their first and second feature was eight years,” he said during the interview. “It made me want to throw up, so many great female directors never get to make another movie. I can only hope I can keep making weird, emotional movies about different periods of my life as a narcissistic person obsessed with popular culture.” ■