Growing up alone: Girls on film at Toronto festival

Thu Sep 17, 2009 5:22pm EDT
 

By Frank McGurty

TORONTO (Reuters) - Three hard-edged movies about young women screening this week at the Toronto film festival depart from Hollywood formulas by avoiding sentimental or romantic cliches that often define movies about teenagers.

The films, which range from a small-budget debut from a Newfoundland director to the directorial debut of British actress Samantha Morton, tell stories of abused or abandoned girls struggling to come to terms with their traumatic pasts.

While there is some lightness and hope in them, the emotions behind these movies are raw and sometimes harrowing. They are far removed from the safety of the industry mainstream dominated by stories about young love or teen angst. As is often the case with Toronto International Film festival fare, they will likely play in art house theaters this coming year.

"Crackie" from director Sherry White, "Precious" by Lee Daniels and "The Unloved" by Morton are about breaking the silence of family secrets and bringing a voice to unlikely heroines. Ultimately they are about empowering silenced girls.

"There are those people who don't have a voice, who don't seem to have anything to say," White said in an interview, explaining why she wanted to tell her protagonist's story. "But it's just that no one is listening."

White's first feature, "Crackie," was shot in Newfoundland, the remote Canadian island where she was born and raised. But there are no quaint harbor scenes here to detract from a story about a young woman's quiet desperation.

Mitsy (Meghan Greeley) is a dowdy girl who dreams of reuniting with the mother who walked out on her long ago and headed west. To compensate for her longings, Mitsy befriends a little dog, or "crackie" in the local parlance, but the mutt won't accept her affection.

Mitsy lives with her grandmother, Bride (Mary Walsh), a tough lady who salvages items from the village dump and entertains men to make ends meet. When the prodigal mom turns up at their door one day, Bride sends her packing in an emotionally-charged scene that reveals the crux of the story.

"The film is about looking for connection, that connection you have with your mother," White said. "Mitsy is spending her life looking for that connection and it is right there in front of her. Because she doesn't have it with her real mother, she can't see it's with the woman who raised her."

UNFLINCHING REALISM

In "The Unloved," Morton offers audiences no comforting resolution for an 11-year-old named Lucy who is taken from her unstable, abusive father and placed in a group home for youth.

There Lucy, played with stoical fortitude by Molly Windsor, rooms with a 16-year-old who becomes a surrogate mom. As we watch the teenager getting high, shoplifting and turning tricks, we also get a glimpse at the pathetic fate that awaits young Lucy if she remains "in care."

In tightly composed scenes with spare dialogue, audiences observe the chaos of Lucy's new home and feel her profound loneliness at being separated from a mom that abandoned her.

If the film seems starkly realistic, there's good reason. Morton, who was twice nominated for Academy awards for her performances in "Sweet and Lowdown" and "In America," drew on her own experiences when writing and directing "The Unloved."

Finally, "Precious, Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire" has the same air of authenticity. Set in Harlem in 1987, the Lee Daniels-directed film tells the harrowing story of an obese, illiterate teenager named Claireece "Precious" Jones, who was impregnated by her own father for a second time.

"I recognized myself in that character," executive producer Oprah Winfrey said at the movie's screening in Toronto.

"Most of all I have seen the 'precious' girls of the world and they have been invisible to me," she said, echoing "Crackie" director Sherry White. "The 'Preciouses' of the world deserve to be heard and deserve a voice."

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

(frank.mcgurty@thomsonreuters.com; +1 416 268-0432))

 
<p>Actress Gabourey Sidibe arrives at the "Precious" film screening during the 34th Toronto International Film Festival, September 13, 2009. REUTERS/Mark Blinch</p>