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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Canadian Film Review: The Bay Boy (1984)

* * 1/2

Director: Daniel Petrie
Starring: Keifer Sutherland, Liv Ullmann

An unremarkable film save for the fact that it won the Genie for Best Picture in 1984 and features a young Kiefer Sutherland in his first big screen role, The Bay Boy is the sort of gentle coming-of-age period drama that seems to be a feature of just about every era of filmmaking. There's nothing truly bad about it but, at the same time, there's nothing all that compelling about either, at least not so far removed from the cultural context of its release. It's a decent enough picture, it just hasn't aged as well as it might have.

Set during the Depression in the mining town of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Daniel Petrie's semi-autobiographical The Bay Boy is a film with a lot on its mind. It's a coming of age story and a low-key family saga, a small town drama, and, briefly, it flirts with being a thriller. It centres on Donald Campbell (Kiefer Sutherland), a teenage boy struggling to balance his growing interest in the opposite sex - which includes Dianna and Saxon (Jane McKinnon and Leah Pinsent), the sisters who live across the road, and Mary McNeil (Isabelle Mejias), who is in near constant pursuit of him - with both his mother's expectation that he will become a priest and the fact of his family's money troubles. The Coca-Cola factory which once employed his father (Peter Donat) has shut down and his father has resorted to digging a bootleg pit in the basement; his mother (Liv Ullmann) runs herself ragged trying to care for the boarders they've had to take in to make ends meet; and Donald is often left to care for his sickly brother, Joe.

The story ultimately splits into several different threads. One concerns Donald's budding romantic life, including the fact that while he has a crush on Saxon, it's Dianna who has a crush on him, not to mention Mary's existence on the periphery of his social life. Another concerns Joe, who requires so much care that Mr. and Mrs. Campbell consider sending him away and whose illness reminds them of the child they've already lost. Yet another plot involves the arrival of a new priest, Father Chaisson (Mathieu Carriere), whose attempt to molest Donald leads to Donald losing faith in the church and deciding not to become a priest. Finally, there is also a murder plot, in which Donald witnesses the killing of an elderly Jewish couple and then finds himself terrorized by the perpetrator, who attempts to intimidate him into keeping his mouth shut.

The various threads of the plot don't come together so much as they all sort of fade out at more or less the same time. Donald decides that he no longer wants to be a priest and though his mother has been pushing it for years, she accepts his decision easily and without asking for an explanation. The family suffers a tragedy mid-way through the film but it hardly causes a ripple through the rest of the story. The murder subplot has promise as something that might give shape to the narrative but that, too, gets resolved rather easily. As a result, The Bay Boy feels just a little too loose to really have much of a lasting impact.

That being said, while the film is somewhat lacking in cohesion, it isn't without its strengths, primarily with respect to the performances. Sutherland, making his film debut, is already an assured presence on screen, shifting Donald easily through a host of emotions and conflicts, and making the struggle of his often competing desires feel very real. As his mother, Ullmann also turns in a stellar performance, bringing more complexity and shading to the character than might seem immediately apparent. The performances and the way that Petrie captures and explores the small town make the film worth a look, but aren't quite enough to disguise the story's weaknesses.

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