Bruce McDonald had a problem. Last month, he was headed to the Glasgow Film Festival for the European premiere of his new coming-of-age drama, Weirdos, and he was concerned he had a reputation to uphold. "They're known as a hard-drinking town," he noted the other morning, sitting in a craft coffee shop in Toronto's Distillery District. "And, you know, having some roots there" – which is to say, being of Scottish descent – "I didn't want to disappoint my brethren."
But McDonald will turn 58 this May and the bad-boy act – all-night benders and infamous quips about buying chunks of hash, etc. – is getting tired, even if it's not actually an act. And besides, the film he was bringing to Glasgow is a restrained memory piece about growing up, which itself evinces a new maturity in McDonald's filmmaking.
(Still, he did knock back a few while he was over there.)
Weirdos is a lovely little black-and-white number about Kit (Dylan Authors), an awkward 15 year old who, on the weekend of the American bicentennial, slips away from the Antigonish home he shares with his father (Allan Hawco) and grandmother (Cathy Jones) to go live with his estranged mother (the radiant Molly Parker) in Sydney. Kit and his girlfriend, Alice (Julia Sarah Stone), plan to hitchhike up the road, hang out at a beach party they've heard about, have "goodbye sex" (which would also be "hello sex," since, as Alice notes, they have never actually had sex) and then bid adieu.
While the film isn't directly autobiographical, writer Daniel MacIvor, a frequent McDonald collaborator (Trigger) who won a Canadian Screen Award for the screenplay last weekend, borrowed heavily from his years growing up on the East Coast.
Revelling in mid-1970s feel-good CanCon standards such as Edward Bear's Last Song, the film brings viewers back to a time when hitchhiking evoked freedom rather than serial killers; when a smiling waitress in a diner might saunter up to a table with a cigarette draped from her lower lip; when a copy of Interview magazine, and its evocation of the faraway fabulousness of New York City and Andy Warhol's Factory, held an almost biblical import for a certain kind of kid who felt like a weirdo when weirdos had not yet taken over the world.
McDonald figures the film's primary audience will be boomers who remember that time, but he's thinking about taking his 14-year-old daughter Charlie and her classmates to TIFF's Lightbox cinema when the film opens there this weekend, to see what they make of it.
"It's impressive to see how far that generation has come, in terms of their acceptance and their knowledge and their awareness – and their empathy. You know, whether the kids themselves are straight or gay, they seem to have an empathy to the 'weirdos.' They stand up for them, they stand up for their friends or their mates who are still working out their sexual identities," McDonald says.
He admits that their "sophistication in terms of gender fluidity and the language they're equipped with" can leave him feeling old. "I was kind of shocked, one day at the dinner table, I felt like my dad, like a fuddy-duddy, being mocked by my teens for my lack of sexual sophistication. I figure I'm a pretty hip guy, but you know, every once in a while you make the kind of reactionary statement that shocks the teens and you're kinda making a joke but you realize it's not a joke to them."
Those who admire McDonald's hipness – on display across his body of feature-film work, from his early road movies such as Roadkill, Highway 61 and Hard Core Logo on up to the Broken Social Scene concert doc/romance This Movie is Broken, the aggressively experimental Ellen Page-starrer The Tracey Fragments, and his horror films Pontypool and Hellions – may be shocked by this new piece: For here is a film about weirdos that is as unweird as can be. (Although, true, an Andy Warhol look-alike does show up and claim to be Kit's "spirit animal.") It radiates a rare empathy, enabled by straightforward storytelling.
Originally, McDonald admits, he took the film's seventies-era setting as inspiration to use a split-screen. His editor Duff Smith wasn't entirely on board, but went along with it anyway, at first.
"Duff, God bless him, was very patient with me, and then one day after we reviewed the first attempts, I said, 'You know, I don't know if I'm totally sure [about the technique],' and he said, 'Why do you want the split-screen in the first place?' And I said, 'Well, maybe the film needs a gimmick, needs a thing, needs a hook.' And he said, 'What if the gimmick is it's just classic and simple?' And it kinda stunned me a little bit, and I was like – 'You know what? You're right. Let's just believe in the thing.'"
So, wait: Bruce McDonald is becoming a classicist at the age of 58? "I'm a slow learner," he nods, as a slow chuckle ripples out from under his trademark cowboy hat. "You experiment a lot when you're first starting out. You're trying to make some noise, you're trying to shake the cage – and you're trying to do that with the little things you have. Because as Canadian filmmakers we don't often have the luxury of having a big star, or a big set piece, or some ultra-violence, or a trip to outer space. So I probably have used formal tactics, and music, to help do that a little bit."
For Weirdos, McDonald again worked with meagre financial resources – during a TIFF press announcement last summer, he pegged the film's budget at $846,228.71 – which determined many of the artistic decisions. They filmed in black and white after realizing that their September, 2015, production schedule would capture a coast of autumn colours rather than a landscape shimmering at the height of summer which they needed to make the film feel like a relic of the bicentennial weekend.
But then, "we started to realize, oh yeah, black and white also has these other advantages: It's a great memory piece, you can travel back. It's also a great unifier of production design," he notes. "It's the eternal dance of the independent filmmaker-producer, to take what is initially a kind of a problem, or a downside, and try and turn it into an upside. And find the beauty in those restrictions."
If that's the promising, paradoxical imperative of Canadian film, writ large – the need to find possibility in our limitations – Weirdos wears its Canadian pride on its maple leaf-adorned sleeve. There is a moment toward the end of the film when a Cambodian refugee who bears scars inflicted by the Khmer Rouge upbraids the teens for watching the U.S. bicentennial on TV. "It's not your parade," he snaps, and it's hard to not think that both MacIvor and McDonald are reminding us that, while it's fine to enjoy the American culture which dominates our airwaves, we remain a separate nation.
"We eternally struggle with that in this country, through literature and movies and TV: 'Well, what is the difference [between the U.S. and Canada]? How is that different?' You know, that's part of what we do, in a way, is try to identify those things. Perhaps to not ever totally define it, but at least to ask the questions."