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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Canadian Film Review: Cole (2009)

* * 1/2

Director: Carl Bessai
Starring: Richard de Klerk, Kandyse McClure, Sonja Bennett

You probably know the story. He's the soulful gem of a rough small town, whose artistic aspirations could be smothered by the demands of the family that keeps him tethered in place. He makes a slight, but definite break, and meets a girl who speaks to the artist in him, but comes from another world, one in which he's made to feel uncouth and unwelcome. Worlds collide and something has to give: he can't have the girl, the realization of his artistic ambition, and the family he holds so dear. Cole can't be said to tell a groundbreaking story, but when it is at its sharpest and most focused, it tells a standard story very well.

Cole is set in Lytton, BC, a small town that was on the verge of booming during the gold rush but never quite lived up to that promise. It's protagonist, Cole (Richard de Klerk), is a young man with a talent for writing who may never live up to his own promise if he can't get away from Lytton, where the only pastimes seem to be getting drunk, and hitting golf balls into the river. Holding Cole in place is his family, consisting of a brain damaged mother who needs constant care, and a sister, Maybelline, (Sonja Bennett) who has her hands full with two kids, a boyfriend who has ideas about what he might do but no ability to follow through, and the family gas station, which she needs Cole's help in order to run. When Cole announces plans to start taking a creative writing course in Vancouver, Maybelline is less than supportive, accusing Cole of being selfish and putting too great a burden on her, but Cole is determined to carve out some small space for himself so that he might one day escape the monotony of small town life.

At school he meets Serafina (Kandyse McClure), with whom he's instantly smitten and who comes to him for assistance after she receives a slap on the wrist from the teacher of their course, Professor Jackson (Stephen E. Miller) after she's caught plagiarizing Zora Neale Hurston for one of her stories. They start to fall in love, but Cole's rough roots clash with the upper middle class lifestyle of Serafina's family, who make it clear (particularly her mother) that Cole is out of place in their world. Serafina, however, is undeterred and if a place can't be made for Cole in her world, she'll make a place for herself in his. Unfortunately, her timing couldn't be worse, as long simmering tensions with Maybelline's abusive boyfriend, Bobby (Chad Willett), come to a head, putting Cole and everyone around him in danger.

Cole boasts a strong cast, strong enough that the performances can often bridge the gaps of the screenplay, which has a tendency to take shortcuts towards its moments of big, profound emotion. For example, if all you saw was the ending, you would think that during the course of the film Cole had developed a deep student/mentor relationship with Professor Jackson, something akin to the relationship between Matt Damon and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting (I use this example because this film's finale faintly echoes that one, and because this film contains a scene which pretty much directly lifts the "tomorrow I'll wake up and I'll be 50" scene from GWH), but that's really not how it is. The connection between Cole and Jackson is flimsy at best, which makes Jackson's reappearance at the film's end feel entirely unearned and slightly manipulative - but, then again, all of the story threads end up being cleaned up just a little too tidily in the end.

At its worst, Cole has a tendency to lean shamelessly towards the melodramatic, taking a dramatic moment and then continuing to up the ante. At its best, Cole is a strong character drama with a firm sense of place and the people within it (the one glaring exception is in the characterization of Bobby, a cardboard villain entirely without depth, despite Willett's best efforts). de Klerk and McClure are a compelling pair at the film's center, playing characters who are each in their own way trapped by their families and long to break free and make their own way, and Bennett delivers a strong performance as a woman stuck, trying to make the best of it, and maybe just a little bit jealous of her brother's opportunity to get out. Cole isn't a bad film, but it's a film that doesn't always live up to the potential of its cast.

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