'The Maiden': Graham Foy's Feature Debut Looks For The Magic But Fails To Capture It [TIFF]

What does the title of Graham Foy‘s “The Maiden” mean? The film’s early title card reveals that it’s a graffiti tag for Kyle (Justin Sluiter) and Colton (Marcel T. Jiminez), two friends in ’90s Calgary who litter their hometown with the marker. Wherever they go, so goes their signature, a sign for their presence at their high school, the half-built houses they loiter in, or the ravine they like to hang out at, with train tracks overhead. But by the end of Foy’s feature debut, when the tag also signifies an absence and perhaps the presence of something more, it’s clear that he wants this tag, and in turn, his film’s title, to resonate with significance for the audience. For Foy, this graffiti isn’t a marker so much as a potent symbol, something that activates various levels of importance for him and his movie.

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And in Foy’s case, that makes a lot of sense. Foy grew up in Calgary and shot the film on-location where, one surmises, he once went to school, skateboarded, smashed up abandoned TV sets, and caught crayfish by the ravine’s stream like Kyle and Colton do on screen. These environments matter to Foy; that much is obvious. They inspire essential memories for him and shimmer with a poetics of place that calls to mind Wordsworth’s romantic adage of emotion recollected in tranquility. Or, alternatively, how, for Proust, places, people, and objects shift and deepen in meaning as time inevitably passes and memories linger and distort, adding new layers of significance in the process.  

But do these places and the movie’s story shimmer like that for the audience? The answer, unfortunately, is no. The problem with “The Maiden” is that, for these deeply personal poetics to translate well for a viewer, Foy needs to craft an assured and competent narrative composition, with the impressions he works with becoming, if not universal, at least relatable to the people watching. He doesn’t do that here, despite a valiant effort. And while this reviewer has fond memories as a teen of traipsing through hometown haunts that include riverbeds and house foundations with friends, their representation onscreen, albeit ambitious, fails to evoke the tragic idyll or the immanent magic in the everyday that Foy wants to. “The Maiden” keeps looking for that magic throughout its runtime, but it fails to capture it.

But it’s not for lack of trying, as the premise of “The Maiden” has plenty of emotive hotspots hidden in its low-key atmosphere. Colton and Kyle are aimless youths, living in blissful ignorance of adult life and its responsibilities until unforeseen tragedy strikes. Colton’s subsequent grief and guilt alienate him from his classmates but poise him for unexpected growth. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with Tucker, a swaggering bully in a Stetson hat, and gains a more compassionate perception of his classmates and surrounding environs. But after Colton stumbles upon a missing classmate’s journal at the place where tragedy first struck, his newfound sensitivity plunges him somewhere else entirely.

Foy deserves credit for several of his stylistic choices in “The Maiden.” The film’s washed-out 16mm visuals and Bressonian use of non-actors from the local area lend its ’90s setting a flair of realism. What Sluiter and Jiminez lack in range as actors, they make up for onscreen as obviously being real-life friends. Their familiarity with each other and Calgary’s sprawl of suburbs and prairies also save Foy’s limitations as a director, which mainly stem from the narrative itself. The story’s set-up is spare, but it cribs too much from its forebears, Gus Van Sant‘s “Paranoid Park” in particular. Colton’s arc may as well be a facsimile of Alex’s, Van Sant’s protagonist in “Park.” And given that Van Sant adapted Blake Nelson‘s 2006 novel of the same name for his film, there’s a distinct sense here that Colton’s arc is more of a shallow archetype than one of a fully-embodied character.

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So, it’s a welcome choice on Foy’s part when “The Maiden” shifts to Whitney (Hayley Ness) in its final third. While Colton navigates life without Kyle, Whitney also endures an emotional crisis that prompts her to flee from her friend June (Sienna Yee) in search of solace at the ravine. What transpires out there for Whitney, and Colton after he discovers her journal, requires a considerable leap of faith from the audience. But, if viewers overlook Foy’s flimsy shift from the mundane to the miraculous, his choices ring true. The ravine becomes not only a local haunt but a haunted elsewhere for all three characters. It transforms that place, and the film, into an imaginal zone that allows the impossible and the emotionally necessary to manifest for them through beauty and art.  

However, if a viewer cannot make that leap into the aesthetic’s subtle (and possibly supernatural) realms with Foy, the last act of “The Maiden” may come off as a muddled mess. And even if one does, it’s hard to tell if the leap is worth the effort. Foy litters symbols throughout the film that he wishes to glisten with art’s unseen order, but their shine glints more like fool’s gold. He sees these emblems as conduits, bridges between one world and art’s other ones, much like the ravine and its train tracks overhead are for Kyle and Whitney. However, after the sudden shift to Whitney’s story, Colton’s aimless blinking of a flashlight fails to take on a secondary significance as a morse-code communication with his lost friend. Whitney’s journal and a tape recorder work okay in this regard, but they are already mediums in the first place. And as for the black cat, its resurrection hints at ritual and ceremony as gateways to mystery, and of death not being the end, but hardly in a convincing fashion.  

So that leaves Kyle and Colton’s graffiti tag, the titular basis of the film. While the tag, like Calgary, obviously means a great deal for Foy, “The Maiden” often comes across less as a narrative film than a personal statement. Ambitions aside, the film often comes off as an insular memorial by Graham Foy for the places and memories that made him. While it’s hard to fault a filmmaker for baring himself like that in a feature debut, it makes for an often frustrating viewing experience, especially when the runtime tracks to almost two hours. Make no mistake, where Foy intends to go in “The Maiden” is all too real; it’s only that, despite his best efforts, the film doesn’t open up to that other side. Sometimes, despite good intentions, the message doesn’t come through, no matter how many times one blinks the flashlight or tags the bridge. [C-]

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