One of the highlights of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival was unquestionably the Canadian drama “Sleeping Giant,” a somber tale of aimless teens up to mischief (and worse) during summertime cottage season. It’s difficult not to think of the film when watching “Porcupine Lake,” a coming-of-age drama making its world premiere at the 2017 festival. If “Sleeping Giant” was a shout, “Porcupine Lake” is a whisper. Told with style, warmth, and restraint, this knowing, delicate film from director Ingrid Veninger should be a modest TIFF crowd-pleaser.
What “Porcupine Lake” will not do, however, is linger in the mind like “Sleeping Giant.” It is no spoiler to say that — like much of adolescence — “Porcupine Lake” is build, build, build. There is an eventual climax, of course, a sudden moment in which the 13-year-old protagonist attempts (and fails) to stop the passage of time, and hit the brakes on family upheaval. Even that scene, however, is a bit too quick to make much of an emotional impact. Still, the acting is effective, the filmmaking efficient, and the setting lovely. “Porcupine Lake” is worthy, wise tale of teenage longing.
Onscreen, Porcupine Lake, Port Severn, Ontario, is a quaint, rather sleepy place, and for teenagers like 13-year-old Bea (Charlotte Salisbury) it’s a bit dull. So is the diner once owned by Bea’s grandfather, and now managed by her father, Scotty (Christopher Bolton). He’s been putting the place back together and working to fix it up, but his intent is a bit muddy. Bea’s mother, Ally (Delphine Roussel), wants to see it sold, but it’s clear that Scotty is not so sure. This back-and-forth between the parents becomes more and more pronounced as “Porcupine Lake” progresses, and soon the “D” word is uttered. One of Veninger’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker is her use of short, simple scenes to tell a much larger backstory. Early in Porcupine Lake, after Bea and her mother have arrived, husband and wife quietly take each other’s hands, walk into the bedroom, lie down and look at each other. Their simultaneous exhaustion, pleasure, and vulnerability is startling, and in Veninger’s able hands, the scene establishes exactly who these characters are and what the relationship between the couple is like: loving, but very, very tired.
It is Bea, however, and not her mother and father, who is onscreen for nearly every moment of “Porcupine Lake.” And that requires a lot from young star Charlotte Salisbury. The character is a tricky one — sweet, wide-eyed, earnest, and rather boring. This is not Bea’s (or Charlotte’s) fault; as with most 13-year-olds, Bea is unsure of who she is and what she wants. In many ways she seems younger than 13; when Bea spots a spider in her bedroom and asks, “What if it crawls in my mouth while I’m sleeping?” the line is uttered with the complete sincerity of an elementary-schooler.
Our interest in Bea becomes greater when she makes her first real friend at the Lake. Kate (Lucinda Armstrong Hall) is as loud, animated, and troublesome as Bea is quiet, reserved, and rule-abiding. These differences mean the two become fast friends. Bea actually seems younger than her 13 years, while Kate seems several years older, and their interactions are often tender but generally dominated by the strong-willed Kate. Consider the humorous dialogue uttered after the friends spot another failed attempt at seduction by her older brother:
Kate: “She makes it seem like she wants it all the time, but then he wants it she doesn’t.”
Bea: “What does he want?”
Kate: “Jesus, Bea! Don’t you know anything?”
Bea: “Sorry …”
Kate: “It’s OK. You can’t help it that you’re from Toronto.”
As the friendship between Bea and Kate grows deeper, the world around them gets messier. Bea’s parents argue. Kate’s brother grows violent. Salisbury makes Bea’s uncertainty feel heartbreaking, and especially nails the film’s most emotional moments. Bea may not believe she’s a “tough cookie,” as she states, but there’s no doubt in the viewer’s mind that her assessment is incorrect. In fact, Bea might be the strongest character onscreen. This helps make “Porcupine Lake” a moving, entertaining journey into the struggles of youth. What resonates most are the film’s subtleties, a testament to writer-director Veninger’s talents. She’s captured the feel of teenage summers, and the exhilaration and fear that are essential to growing up. And while “Porcupine Lake” won’t move viewers to tears, it will certainly cause some personal reflection. That’s a praise-worthy achievement for any coming-of-age drama. [B-]