Werewolf *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ashley McKenzie
Written by: Ashley McKenzie.
Starring: Andrew Gillis (Blaise), Bhreagh MacNeil (Vanessa).
There is something to be said for a debut feature that keeps things relatively simple. Many times, we see debut filmmakers try and cram everything into their first film, as if they’re afraid they’ll never get a chance to make another one ever again. But Cape Breton filmmaker Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf is different – it is a relatively simple and straight forward “young junkies in love” film – a well-populated subgenre that containing films like Panic in Needle Park to Heaven Knows What, and many in-between. Werewolf was made for very little money, with an amateur cast, and a crew with little to no experience – and she delivers a startling debut. So while the plot is well-worn, Werewolf remains a powerful film – amazingly well made by McKenzie, and acted by her two leads. One hopes it leads to great things for all three.
The film stars Andrew Gillis as Blaise and Bhreagh MacNeil as Vanessa – a pair of junkies in Cape Breton, trying to make it from one methadone fix to another. They push a lawnmower from house to house, hoping that someone will pay them to mow their lawn – or in some cases, feel bad enough to give them money to go away. Blaise is the older and “wiser” of the pair of them – he’s somewhere in his 20s, she’s only 19 – and he almost uses Vanessa as a prop – a way to get sympathy from the people whose lawn he wants to mow, or the various government workers who are unwilling or incapable of helping the pair of them. While Blaise and Vanessa are together, there’s very little evidence of physical intimacy between them – although whether that’s because the drugs has sapped them of their sex drive or not, is like many things, left off-screen. Regardless, they are stuck with each other, and go about their lives from one fix to another.
Whatever natural beauty Cape Breton may have – especially in the summer – is sapped out by McKenzie and cinematographer Scott Moore. Werewolf is a grey film – and shot mostly in close-ups and medium shots – emphasizing just how narrow the world for these two characters is – there’s no room for anything around them. For the first half of the film, Blaise is given center stage – allowed to go on his rants, as Vanessa sits passively in the background. As the movie progresses though, she slowly takes over – and there are more scenes of her on her own, at a job. Yes, it’s a shitty job at an ice cream parlor – but it’s her shitty job, and she takes at least some pride in it. The movie, which for most its runtime is bleak in the extreme, gives us at least a little hope that Vanessa may not be a lost cause – no such hope exists for Blaise.
Werewolf is a remarkably intimate film that shows these people and their lives with unblinking honesty. No, it doesn’t break any new ground – the way, I think the Safdie brothers Heaven Knows What did a few years ago – but in a way it doesn’t need to. It’s a remarkable debut for McKenzie – one that holds out portends great things for her future. I cannot wait to see what she does next – as no matter how straight forward Werewolf undeniably is in many ways, it shows great talent as well.