—“This is great! You gonna to give me the Grand Tour?”
—“My house. Your house. There’s the shore. The mine. The Main Drag. Hospital. Tavern. Church. Tavern. Church. Church. Rink. School. Train station.”
Growing up in a small town can be heaven or hell, or a mixture of both. Some people never leave, some run away and never come back, others leave for a while and then drift back to touch base with roots that go deeper down than they had imagined. Memories of small-town life are often bittersweet—so many limitations, so much intimate contact with others’ lives (for better and worse), such an unavoidable awareness of place. Tricia Fish, the author of the screenplay for Allan Moyle’s New Waterford Girl, left New Waterford (close to Glace Bay and Sydney in Nova Scotia’s industrial Cape Breton region) when she was 17 and settled in Toronto. Her screenplay is autobiographical, set in the ‘70s, but memories that might have been bittersweet are gentled by the self-confidence of a young woman who’s made it on her own in the big city and can look back on the embarrassments of adolescence with a nostalgic eye. New Waterford Girl is an odd hybrid, a gentle farce. What could have been cruel has become kind. It’s a finer film because of that change of heart.
I misjudged New Waterford Girl when I first began watching it. I think I was expecting something closer to David Adams Richards’ stories of working-class life in New Brunswick’s Miramichi River Valley, Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo, or Steven King’s edgy Norman Rockwell inversions. The main character in Fish’s story is an eccentric, inspired 15-year-old girl nicknamed “Moonie” (Liane Balaban) who is at odds with just about everyone and everything in her community. Literature is her life, and it’s not an obsession that goes down easy in a town fixated on mining, boxing, booze, sex, hockey, and the Virgin Mary. There’s a real potential for tragedy in the clash between a free-spirit and a community that seems to embody everything the 60s and the 70s didn’t stand for. But New Waterford Girl kept insisting on giving me comedy instead of tragedy, and I was ready to accuse the filmmakers of cheap stereotyping, exaggeration, and self-contradiction.
Then I smartened up.
Trisha Fish hasn’t forgotten much about growing up in New Waterford, but she’s clearly willing to forgive. A lot. The focus of the film is on character. Whatever his or her limitations (and there are some doozies), everyone in New Waterford Girl is given a good heart. Trisha Fish accords the townspeople, young and old, the same grace she accords her parents; it’s easy to see the flaws, but it’s wiser to see beyond them. The toughest girls in New Waterford cower at the sight of a plastic statue of the Virgin, macho boys surrender to the hand of God in the unlikely form of a visiting girl’s left hook, the paterfamilias bakes the first cake of his life, and mom tells her own daughter to get out of town for her own good. At one point, when Moonie and her best friend drive out to Number 11 Field, notorious make-out zone at the end of town, what they find is not a lot of cars with steamed-up windows but a bunch of young people gathered around a fire harmonizing on an old Cape Breton song. It’s a poignant scene. Oddly enough, it came at just that point in the movie where I was asking myself how we’re to believe that a culture portrayed as making Moonie’s life so difficult could ever have inspired Stan Rogers and produced The Rankin Family, Natalie McMaster, Ashley MacIsaac (who guest stars in New Waterford Girl as a barroom fiddler), and Great Big Sea. Moonie gets the answer as she stands around that fire. Those songs, and the shoreline she watches as she joins in the singing, are as much a part of who she is as are all the foreign places she dreams of visiting.
Liane Balaban turns in an amazing performance as Moonie. Every line, every look, and every gesture works perfectly—whether she’s sulking over her supper, driving local boys crazy with a scheme she herself labels as “devious, sinful, and inspired,” telling her infatuated English teacher to get a life, or throwing up at the bar in the Legion. Check out her slouching walk when she’s depressed. She’s the incarnation of every frustrated teen who has tried to convince disillusioned adults that dreams come true. Her wardrobe is what one might expect if one took a trench-coat-wearing Matrix fan and locked her up in her room with Leonard Cohen CDs for a month. Liane Balaban’s work as an actress is even more impressive considering that she’s actually a full-time Toronto University journalism student. Here’s proof once again that, with a good script and a good director, unknown actors are often more convincing than stars with stratospheric salaries Moonie sees her only—admittedly farfetched—way out of New Waterford coming in the form of a scholarship from one of the dozens of places her young English teacher, Cecil Sweeney, sends portfolios of her work. The first time I watched the film, distracted by Balaban’s charm and thinking about the film’s plotline, I failed to realize how well-played is each of New Waterford Girl’s supporting roles. Andrew McCarthy is perfect as a teacher who’s come to New Waterford supposedly to “find himself.” In reality, he’s there because he hasn’t a clue what he wants to do with his life. He’s a slacker as a teacher and he’s contemptuous of the Cape Breton culture around him (“Class is over, Joey. Go eat some halibut.”) He’s in love with Moonie because she’s got the vision and energy he can’t find in himself. Giving Moonie an appreciative audience for her creative energies is his one redeeming act.
Moonie’s two older, more worldly-wise sisters are played by real-life sisters Cassie MacDonald and Krista MacDonald. They’re worried that Moonie’s not behaving “normally” for a girl her age. Her obsession with literature is seen as unhealthy self-absorption. Moonie’s parents (Mary Walsh & Nicholas Campbell) see things the same way. They can’t understand the teenage changeling who seems to have replaced the loving, outgoing child they once knew. Mom’s in permanent override. Nursing is the noblest thing she can imagine her daughter aspiring to. Dad’s no help. He’s busy trying to pretend the world’s no more complicated than a day at the mines, a couple hours at the Legion, and an evening of Hockey Night in Canada. As for Moonie’s older brother, immature would be too generous as description. Besides, he’s a little dazed and confused from his own shotgun wedding (celebrated, for economy’s sake, at the same time as his bride’s father’s funeral). The only ally Moonie has within her family is her younger brother, Felix. He’s young enough to accept her as she is instead of worrying about what she should be.
Cut off from her contemporaries, Moonie risks disappearing into the black hole of her own fantasies. She’s pulled back into the world by Lou Benzoa (Tara Spencer-Nairn), a brash, irrepressible refugee from the Bronx. Lou’s eyes-wide-open, isn’t-this-amazing! perspective on her new Cape Breton home eventually opens Moonie’s own eyes to the fact that a good writer’s imagination embraces her home town as passionately as it does the streets of Paris. Lou and Moonie’s friendship comes across as one of the most natural, believable, joyous ones I can think of in recent movies.
I also loved The Look. The Look is the priceless expression on actors’ faces when turns of events render them speechless. Moonie gets The Look from her family when her mother breaks down in tears over her adolescent incomprehensibility. Lou gets it when she yanks the rock’n roll out of the 8-track(!) at a party and sticks in R & B. Moonie’s sisters get it when they think she’s just groped Joey in the alley. The Look is one of life’s commonest stage directions. Some of us probably practice it. We’ve all mastered it at one time or another. We just don’t get to see ourselves.
One of the toughest things a visitor (“from down the shore”) like Lou has to come to terms with is Cape Breton’s Catholicism. There’s an initial faux pas involving a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary that shocks even the supposedly worldly Moonie. The local doctor, while being sympathetic and understanding with unwed mothers and a patient he mistakenly assumes is gay, will not hear the word “abortion” spoken aloud in his office. New Waterford’s church dominates the townscape. Lou adapts well, though. Divine retribution becomes part of a subplot involving boxing and infidelity than I won’t even try to explain here.
How New Waterforders’ sincere faith is reconciled with the rather surprising number of unwed mothers sent off to Antigonish is not explained. Perhaps it’s simple rebellion. Perhaps it’s a limited choice of recreational activities in an isolated mining community. Or perhaps it’s everyone’s ability to parse Catholic dogma cleverly enough to make very broad room for both sin and redemption.
If one’s looking hard enough for a sign from heaven, one’s bound to see it. A lot of characters in New Waterford Girl are looking mighty hard.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Once again, this is one of those rare times when I run into a film that’s neither in my library nor on the regular streaming services I use. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to complete this entry at some point down the road. It’s particularly frustrating when the can’t-find film is Canadian.
Available on YouTube? No, and not available for purchase or rental through YouTube or iTunes