If you go to film festivals long enough, you end up getting cynical about a few things. For example, it becomes clear that for political reasons, programmers are often pressured to support filmmakers from the country where the fests take place. Instead of getting first dibs on the best of what’s created in their own backyards, they wind up making room for local movies that got turned down by other festivals. That means, when in Berlin, you’re better off skipping the Perspektive Deutsches Kino section. Venice is the wrong place to see Italian films. And when it comes to Toronto, don’t waste your time on Canadian fare.
Now, if you’re not a film-festival burnout, you might (rightly) ask: But isn’t that a little harsh? Surely there are some treasures stashed away among all those homemade movies? And to that, I would offer up Jasmin Mozaffari’s “Firecrackers,” which is the kind of discovery I’m kicking myself for overlooking nearly a year earlier, when it premiered at the Toronto Int’l Film Festival. Mozaffari is a major talent — and one whom her fellow Canadians had been tracking for some time — and in this case, TIFF deserves credit for championing a voice who’s sure to be recognized by the international film community soon enough. Like a young Andrea Arnold, Mozaffari has an incredible eye for the details that bring a situation or place to life, working with inexperienced actors to create electrifying characters and a sense of edgy unpredictability.
“Firecrackers” is a good word to describe Mozaffari’s two teenage leads: There’s Lou (Michaela Kurimsky, wildly alive in every frame), whose red hair billows and flames about her shoulders like the glowing tail of a passing comet, and her combustible best friend Chantal (Karena Evans), both itching to escape the black-hole small Ontario town that seems to have sucked the life force from all the adults around them. It’s not clear what talents or prospects either of these young ladies have to make it in the world beyond, but that’s not the point: They can’t stand the prospect of becoming like their parents, and the thought of spending even one more day there leaves them agitated and angry.
The story itself isn’t so original. Every year, four or five — heck, more like 15 — indies attempt to capture the plight of fed-up teenagers, stuck in repressed dead-end communities, yearning to break free. “Firecrackers” doesn’t diverge from this formula, but it feels radical in its characterization of Lou and Chantal. From her opening scene, Mozaffari plunges us into their rowdy, restless state of mind, as the camera hovers on the periphery of a brutal girl fight — any closer, and Lou might grab audiences by the hair and pull them into the fracas.
As it is, she’s a fiery-haired tornado of aggression, throwing her foul-mouthed adversary to the ground and punching her till her knuckles bleed. Lou’s peers gather around, goading her on as they film the spectacle on their iPhones, but apart from Chantal, she has no friends. One boy, Josh (Scott Cleland), treats them better than the others, but when it matters, he doesn’t have their back. In fact, he wants the same thing as all the guys. The sooner they can ditch this town, the better.
Whether or not people realize it, movies tend to have a conditioning effect on audiences, reinforcing class and gender roles. By example, they serve to show young women how they’re “supposed” to behave. “Firecrackers” torches those paradigms, openly defying the idea that anyone gets to tell Lou and Chantal how to think or act. They drink, they smoke, they grind their moms’ prescription drugs and snort the powder for a cheap high. While not as extreme as the eff-ups that we see in Harmony Korine movies, they’re allowed to be impatient, impolite and above all imperfect.
“Firecrackers” is a movie about freedom, and the oppressive way that concept — spoken about like the right of every Westerner — can feel so out-of-reach to even relatively privileged young people. Aided by DP Catherine Lutes’ restless handless cinematography, Mozaffari presents their situation in a way that feels like having your head forced underwater, where we share the characters’ difficulty to breathe. Lou and Chantal are young enough that they shouldn’t be obliged to have their entire lives figured out, but the moments of bliss are short-lived, interrupted by parents and thuggish teenage boys. A scene of revelry down by the lake takes a dark turn, the worst of it occurring off-camera, left to our imaginations when Lou finds Chantal in the shower, trying to erase the traces of what the guys did to her in the sand.
Because she’s fiercely loyal — and because she never backs down from a fight — Lou confronts the perpetrator the next day, destroying his car with a steel pipe. It’s an exhilarating scene, echoing the short film of the same name that Mozaffari made as her thesis film at Ryerson U., but one can already anticipate there being consequences. This is not the way society deals with such situations. (In fact, society does not deal with such situations, essentially obliging young women to accept being mistreated.) Lou’s mother (Tamara LeClair) doesn’t ask why her daughter acted out, doesn’t care that Chantal may have been raped, but instantly steps in to manage the incident, taking the money they’ve saved to skip town and giving it to the boy whose car they damaged.
With their escape kitty depleted and the screws tightening around them, the two girls find their plans foiled and their friendship tested. Because “Firecrackers” belongs to a familiar genre of small-town indies, we can anticipate how things will work out, and yet Mozaffari manages to surprise with the details. Occasionally, moments are so elliptical as to be unclear, but even then, they make an impression. There are tender scenes — as when Johnny (David Kingston), the sensitive new guy Lou’s mom is dating, convinces Lou’s possibly closeted kid brother (Callum Thompson) to cut his hair — and there are terrifying ones as well, like the time a circle of drunken guys pressures Johnny to put the barrel of his BB gun in Chantal’s mouth. No wonder these two are primed to explode.