Scarborough, from directors Rich Williamson and Shasha Nakhai, is a big-hearted portrait of families in a low-income neighbourhood.
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One of TIFF’s most stirring crowdpleasers is Scarborough, a tough story with a huge heart. Catherine Hernandez adapts her own award-winning 2017 novel into the screenplay for this film about three kids and their parents living in Scarborough, a multicultural and low-income neighbourhood in Toronto. At a hefty 136-minute runtime, it’s a film that sometimes struggles to know what to cut from the source text. But it’s also easy to understand why: the filmmakers’ love for their characters is so palpable, it’s infectious. When the film ended, I, too, wished I could keep spending time with them.
The film begins with hurried whispers: a young, Filipino mother, Edna (Ellie Posadas), ushers her son, Bing (Liam Diaz), to pack his things and leave, presumably before an abusive partner returns home. Meanwhile, another young mother, a white woman named Jessica (Kristen MacCulloch), also swiftly vacates her daughter, Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), from their apartment because they’re being evicted. Unlike the panicked but kind Edna, Jessica gets worked up and is physically rough with Laura. Right from the start, directors Rich Williamson and Shasha Nakhai establish that these characters’ lives are perpetually unstable; the constantly moving camera feels as panicked as the characters are.
Scarborough goes on to follow the lives of Bing, Laura, and another child, Sylvie (Essence Fox), who is Indigenous, as well as their parents, over the course of the school year. Unusually, the film was also shot, documentary style, over the course of a year, on location in Scarborough. The time and care that went into the shoot is felt in the strong bonds between the characters, whether that be parent and child relationships or the budding friendship between the three kids (all of them excellent, natural performers).
The film’s decision to focus equally on the parents and the children makes for a sprawling but much more complex film. The child’s-eye view lends lightness and wonder, while the time we spend with the parents allows us to understand the emotional and physical labour required to support their children emotionally while also earning money and getting sleep. One thing that unites all three parents — Edna, Sylvie’s mother, Marie (Cherish Violet Blood), and Laura’s dad, Cory (Conor Casey), who takes over parenting when Jessica abandons Laura — is they’re all exhausted. Marie is running back and forth to hospital appointments for her sick partner; Edna works at a nail salon; and Cory is an emotionally volatile drug addict trying to get better for his daughter’s sake. Each actor conveys warmth when talking to their child, but their enthusiasm is always tempered by their sheer tiredness. In Cory’s case, that turns into angry frustration, which he takes out on Laura.
What turns Scarborough from a well-observed slice-of-life film into something more thoughtful is its focus on social support systems. It also prevents the film from becoming poverty porn. Bing, Laura, and Sylvie are brought together by a programme called Ontario Reads which is set up in their school and run by Miss Hina (Aliya Kanani), a kind woman with a keen understanding of the kind of support low-income families need. Ontario Reads opens every day from 8 am and provides a space for kids and parents to hang out, learn, and crucially, eat healthy meals. Miss Hina receives emails from her superior complaining that she shouldn’t focus so much on the free food angle, because the purpose of the programme is “to cultivate the next generation of good parents.” But Miss Hina understands that removing the pressure of buying and cooking another nutritious meal is what will allow the parents the time and headspace to be good parents.
There are tragic, absolutely heartbreaking moments in the film, but there are also moments that will make you cry happy tears, because Miss Hina’s support helps these kids and their parents have a fighting chance. She helps the shy Laura come out of her shell and learn to read; she offers Marie information and help in getting her autistic son, Johnny (Felix Jedi Ingram Isaac), a diagnosis. Most importantly, she offers all three families a safe space to read, eat, chat, play, and find community. By the end of the film, the kids have come leaps and bounds in their education and self-confidence, and the parents have the tools to give their kids the support they need. Despite what Miss Hina’s supervisor might say, most of these parents were never ‘bad parents’; they were parents who needed material support.
Scarborough never lets us forget that programmes as beneficial and community-oriented as Ontario Reads are always precarious. There’s only so much Miss Hina can do without the support of a child’s parent. Laura’s dad is proof of this: even though the programme does her so much good, her prideful and volatile father is wary of it from the start and often threatens to pull her away. It seems he’s received so little support in his life that he’s reluctant to accept help from anyone. Plus, the spectre of Jane (Cate McKim), Miss Hina’s supervisor, hovers over the film in the form of passive aggressive emails that appear as text on screen. While Miss Hina understands the needs of the community, she reports to Jane, who evidently does not. There’s a worry that if Jane isn’t satisfied, she could pull funding from the programme, although mercifully, this doesn’t happen in the film.
One of the film’s only missteps — and the only time it veers near poverty porn — is an ill-advised, lengthy flashback to Laura’s past. It shows past abuse she faced at the hands of her abusive, drug-addicted parents. Never mind the fact that we see Laura face abuse in the present, too, the flashback teaches us nothing new about Laura. It shows us a traumatic past that was already evidenced by Laura’s behaviour: she is almost always silent, with her head turned down, as if she’s afraid to step out of line. When the effect of the abuse she had faced is so abundantly clear, I felt it was gratuitous to also show that past abuse in such vivid detail. Still, the amount of love and empathy in the rest of the film is evidence that the flashback was more a misstep than it was symptomatic of a larger problem with the film’s gaze.
For its child’s-eye view of poverty, the film is sure to garner comparisons to The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017), but its focus on social support systems makes it a lot more hopeful and constructive. Rather than just observing families in a desperate state, Scarborough shows how they could be helped, if programmes like Ontario Reads were funded. In that sense, a much more apt comparison is Steve McQueen’s Small Axe: Education, about an alternate social support system created in London to help Black children learn. Both Education and Scarborough show a way forward for poor families and their children’s education, if only they were extended the empathy and resources that they need.
Scarborough was just picked up for distribution in Canada by levelFILM. It is still seeking distribution in the US and the UK.
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