Toronto resembles any troubled American city suffused with crime, drugs and stark class differences in Ed Gass-Donnelly’s hysterical “This Beautiful City.” Title’s strained irony signals that subtlety won’t be pic’s middle name, and caps a filmmaking package that seems designed to reinforce anti-Toronto attitudes shared by many, largely rural Canucks. Reminiscent of some of the worst aspects of fellow Canadian Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” Gass-Donnelly’s over-calculated, crisis-fueled script links yuppies, crack addicts and a cop, with few signs of its origins as the writer-helmer’s stage play “Descent.” Canadian distrib Seville must depend on critical support for mild theatrical and vid returns at best.
Although he derived his characters and setting from his gentrifying Toronto neighborhood around Queen Street West, Gass-Donnelly creates a dramatic universe that lets no light in, with each person apparently doomed to either death or a lonely, tragic life. (In this context, the press notes’ comment that the work is a “love letter to Toronto” is a bit hard to swallow.) The messy randomness of even a generally becalmed mega-burg like Toronto is translated here into pre-arranged formulas that require characters to cross paths, usually ensuring the worst possible outcomes.
All is not well in the squeaky-clean condo near downtown owned by architect Harry (Noam Jenkins) and wife Carol (Caroline Cave). After an awkward dinner party, Carol becomes a bit unhinged and falls (or perhaps leaps) off the balcony. Cop Peter (Stuart Hughes), who’s been keeping an eye on his hooker-druggie daughter Pretty (Kristin Booth) as she prowls Queen Street, comes to Carol’s aid, forming a bond that lasts three months later, after Carol’s recovery.
Gass-Donnelly’s characters are deliberately crippled in one form or another — literally, in Carol’s case. Pretty is addicted to crack, while her b.f. Johnny (Aaron Poole) is experiencing paranoid hallucinations from a combo of meds and heart-related issues. Harry, in some form of emotional denial, can’t connect with Carol, who embarks on an uncertain, somewhat passionless affair with stressed-out Peter. Pic tends to gloss over the details (i.e., what exactly is sending Johnny into a tizzy?) and bends over backward to concoct links among the disparate characters — the most pronounced case being Harry, who offers to take Pretty to dinner with no follow-up of sex. Pretty is as nonplussed as auds surely will be trying to figure out Harry’s unmotivated altruism, with no clues offered by Jenkins’ opaque performance.
Booth overplays Pretty as both addict and victim; Poole, having been involved in the original play, has Johnny in his bones, finding interesting ways to express mercurial craziness. Cave manages the most heartfelt perf in the film’s most underwritten role, generating a vulnerability and just-concealed anger that Hughes’ Peter responds to with genuine concern.
Gass-Donnelly’s decision to strike a blunt visual contrast between street (d.p. Micha Dahan’s handheld camera) and condo (fixed lensing with ultra-cool color palette), is too on-the-nose. On the other hand, the underscore by Toronto combo FemBots and Iner Souster is exquisitely calibrated, backed by well-chosen tracks by local bands.