Ranging from 1971’s “Dusty and Sweets McGee” to Collin Schiffli’s more recent “Animals,” downbeat dramas about young addicts in love have been sufficiently numerous to constitute an entire subgenre, one complete with its own readily identifiable conventions and archetypes. For all her attempts at documentary-style verisimilitude, filmmaker Ashley McKenzie doesn’t really cover much new ground with “Werewolf,” her debut feature. Indeed, the familiarity and predictability of its scenario about co-dependency in the lower depths make the relatively short Canadian indie seem longer than it is. When they aren’t stealing glances at their watches, however, viewers may find themselves grudgingly admiring the affectless naturalism of the lead performances, and the borderline Bressonian austerity of McKenzie’s storytelling.
Nessa (Breagh) and Blaise (Andrew Gillis) are introduced as recovering addicts hovering very near rock bottom, living in a ramshackle trailer in the woods near a Nova Scotia town and existing on the pittances they earn mowing lawns. Their day-to-day lives appear to be nothing more meaningful than purgatory endured between trips to the methadone clinic. Trouble is, the rusty old lawn mower the young couple uses to make money is in no better shape than they are. And their tab at the methadone clinic is $150, and steadily rising.
Nessa is waif-like and largely unassertive, but she gradually emerges as the most resilient of the pair. More important, she possesses appreciably more people skills than Blaise, who comes across as both foggy-headed and belligerent when interacting with anyone, other than Nessa — be it an unsympathetic lawn mower repairman, or a faceless bureaucrat who can’t, or won’t, provide help.
Blaise is not yet so far gone that he lacks any sense of pride. But he’s not too proud to rely on Nessa, a fact underscored early on when a wary homeowner, understandably reluctant to let strangers cut his grass, offers the couple five dollars just to go away from his door and never return. Blaise says he won’t touch the guy’s money. “No,” the homeowner replies, “but I bet you’ll darn sure use it if she takes it.”
McKenzie tells us next to nothing about the lives Nessa and Blaise lived, individually or as a couple, before “Werewolf” begins. Blaise makes a fleeting reference to having a daughter, but that’s about it. (And before you ask, no, despite the film’s title, no one admits to a past history of lycanthropy.) Instead, she focuses intently on the drearily concrete details of the hard-scrabble present. Individual shots are framed with a randomness that doubtless is more apparent than real, enhancing the illusion that McKenzie is merely observing, and not controlling, the fates of her characters. At times, however, the faux cinema vérité visuals are annoyingly self-conscious, particularly when DP Scott Moore trains his shaky handheld camera on Nessa and Blaise as they rest for a long period on a gravel road. Maybe they should have traded in that lawn mower for a tripod.