An oddly upbeat coming-of-ager that nonjudgmentally treats a Canadian teen’s love affair with her high-school English teacher as a simple rite of passage, “Molly Maxwell” puts a sunny spin on a rather prickly subject. Most disarming is the casting of smoldering newcomer Charlie Carrick (soon to appear in “The Borgias”) as an instructor any teen might have a crush on, coupled with the use of real students from a Toronto arts school as extras, suggesting director Sara St. Onge may be working out an off-limits personal fantasy on film. Potential domestic distribs should prepare for a ratings-board run-in.
Like a modern-day Punky Brewster, Molly Maxwell (played by actual teenager Lola Tash) puts great care into looking disheveled, blending hipster T-shirts, flannel shirts and camouflage coats in combinations meant to announce her individuality. But Molly doesn’t feel unique, despite having been accepted to the Phoenix Progressive School for young artists-to-be, where the uncertain teen has yet to pick her specialty.
Each student needs a creative concentration in order to graduate, yet Molly fears she’s run out of options, having tried and abandoned such random electives as banjo playing, graphic novel writing and break dancing. Ultimately deciding that trying to seduce her sexy English teacher, Ben Carter (Carrick), would make as good a project as any, she feigns an interest in photography in order to enlist him as her advisor. Keeping her plans secret from her friends and her impossibly supportive parents (Krista Bridges and Rob Stewart), Molly finds ways to spend time with Ben alone, using many of the same clumsily naive tactics that might seem endearing if she were flirting with a peer rather than someone eight years her senior.
Ben’s attention makes Molly feel special, which is what she seems to need most, considering how untalented she feels compared with those around her. Superficial insecurities aside, Molly has no idea how spoiled she is to be raised in such an encouraging environment. Not only does everyone want what’s best for her, but there’s no pressure on her to do something conventional with her life.
Alternately sultry and vulnerable, Tash adeptly navigates the contradictions of her character, earning sympathy even in Molly’s most self-absorbed moments. As writer-director, St. Onge shows a Judy Blume-like willingness to confront the realities of contemporary teenage sexuality, from lesbian classmates to an awkward Planned Parenthood exam, blending unvarnished honesty with her propensity for cutesiness.
At times, it can be hard to tell whether the film is trying to be quirky or merely intends to comment on the quirkiness of a place like the Phoenix school, where the spacey principal (Richard Clarkin) is eventually revealed to be the only one with much of a grasp on reality. This off-kilter quality is something of a personal signature, judging by St. Onge’s endearingly eccentric short films (such as “Lobotomobile” and “Turkey”), resulting in a stylish, sitcom-like tone for a subject that really ought to have more edge to it.