BIFF 2011 #21: Modra (Canada 2010)

In – and not in – the family: teenage uncertainty in 'Modra'

Any film that starts with the Toronto skyline has me at hello. However, this first feature-length film by Ingrid Veninger, does not linger in the new world but uses it as a jumping off point for its heroine Lina’s travels back to her European family’s home in Slovakia, to the town of Modra. Having been dumped by her boyfriend just before the trip, she takes Leco, a schoolmate, both acting on a whim out of the loose end they each find themselves in. What follows is a great treat – an unpredictable, uncertain alliance played out against the strangeness of the country to these new world kids adding to the emotion. The local cast was made up of Veninger’s own extended family – she emigrated to Canada with her parents when she was 2 – to complement her daughter Hallie Switzer in the main role.

We can find ourselves watching much consciously staged, bigger budget cinema, that might strive and never achieve the kind of easy tone and great empathy with the characters that this film does. I’ve seen it described as “DIY filmmaking” and it has that quality of being filmed almost as a home movie at times. However, there is an assurance behind this style that makes all the scenes ‘add up’ to a narrative about being that age and starting to understand – that you don’t know very much! The tone was sustained; I think this is at least partly due to the control of scripting the director describes in the press kit (www.modrathemovie.com) rather than surrendering completely to improv, giving it a control and shape for her audience. There is a visual assurance as well – to film with apparent realism but creating scenes drenched in light and warmth, with a canny eye for visual storytelling in the frame. The narrative arc similarly did not get lost – despite the way, given the regular confusion of its key characters, it made some good use of the ‘near miss’ throughout. One of its greatest markers was the way in which this was a story about going home, but not one which needed to exploit the strangeness of another culture or to counterpoint the teenagers as ‘strangers in a strange land’. They were, but they became part of it too, and the friendship/relationship/friendship developed believably – as it would do – in fits and starts. This is credit to the lead actors (Alexander Gammell alongside as Leco) and Veninger’s direction. As an actress herself (by her credits) Veninger seemed to know how to draw performances out of an inexperienced cast without losing their appealing ordinariness. She has also turned something clearly deeply autobiographical into a film that engages more widely, particularly with its understated humour.

It reminded me strongly of a film I saw years ago, Looking for Alibrandi, an Australian coming-of-age movie, that also had that an immediate charm. This film has distribution in Canada (with Mongrel Media) and is being released on DVD there (May 17th) but it has some hope of international sales with an agent recently signing on. Meanwhile, after Toronto, Vancouver, São Paulo – and Bradford – it continues on the festival circuit (Murmansk upcoming in May). Veninger was in Bradford to introduce her film, to field a short Q&A and then to use the time to film a scene for her next project (about a woman filmmaker) using the audience in the cinema. I like this woman’s style already!

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