Anna Claire Beitel, Liam Diaz, and Essence Fox in Scarborough (2021)
It’s easy to see why Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s Canadian film Scarborough was this year’s first runner-up for the TIFF People’s Choice. Adapted from Catherine Hernandez’s novel, the story is a compelling reflection of a community that is largely ignored. An interwoven story of family, neglect, hope, love, everyday acts of care. A story from which yearning for togetherness and understanding beams. Radiating with an open heart, Scarborough follows three children living in a low-income neighborhood who cross paths and become fast friends. Nakhai and Williamson bring an unmistakably empathetic approach to the community beating at the core of this story. With a lived-in observational quality, Scarborough takes a look at some of the people who make up the city of Scarborough in Ontario, Canada. The story paints a portrait of their everyday lives, all the ups and downs that occur at any given moment. It’s a community-driven film that finds focus in the perspectives of children, as they both absorb and endure their surroundings, which range from household to household. Led by remarkable child actors, Scarborough is one of the most vital films in recent memory.
Catherine Hernandez’s novel (sharing the film’s title) is a portrait of multiple voices in a tight-knit neighborhood whose needs are often neglected and pushed aside. Located east of Toronto, Scarborough buckles under the heaviness of low-income, racism, prejudice, and a system that constantly fails them. From the beginning of the film, Nakhai and Williamson establish a hurriedness to the story. The pacing is suitably frazzled as characters are on the move, in a rush to avoid potentially harmful situations approaching. The film introduces Edna (Ellie Posadas) as she wakes her son Bing (Liam Diaz) and gently instructs him in a panic to gather belongings, presumably before his father returns home. Elsewhere in another household, Jessica (Kristen MacCulloch) berates her daughter Laura (Anna Claire Beitel) to gather belongings, physically abusing her in the process. Hernandez, adapting her novel into the screenplay, opens this story in the thick of people’s lives, exploring what day-to-day looks like for them. Down to the finest details, the story gives so many layers to each character with remarkable subtlety. By bringing specificity to this community of people, with a focus on three households in particular, Scarborough feels far-reaching in its empathetic approach.
Among the people in this community are the families of Bing and Laura, as well as young Sylvie (Essence Fox) and her mother Marie (Cherish Violet Blood). Sylvie, Bing’s best friend, observes as her mother struggles to balance finding a permanent home and taking care of her autistic son Johnny (Felix Jedi Ingram Isaac). The children are brought together by a school program where families can drop in before classes, have access to free snacks, and simply have a safe space to be in. The literacy program is run by Ms Hina (Aliya Kanani), who cultivates a healthy and inclusive space for everyone to join in. She’s also witnessing first-hand the direct effects of low-income on educational resources. Her supervisor, who appears to mean well but really has no real grasp on the realities of this community, subtly discourages her from “running a soup kitchen”. In a stunning moment between the two characters late in the film, Hina makes her feelings known when her supervisor’s response to a sudden tragedy is all about “shock” and “I can’t imagine”. With faux pleasantries, she attempts to deny Hina the space to mourn. It’s one of the most quietly devastating moments in the film, to watch in real-time how a system has failed a child. The power of Hernandez’s writing is in making this community as multi-faceted and observational as possible. So much happens in between the lines, in the tiniest of gestures and actions, and the film soars by shining a light on those moments whether they are good, bad, or ugly.
The filmmakers exude a palpable love for the characters of Scarborough. It’s a marvel how the ensemble is filled with mostly first-time actors, delivering a level of performances one would find in the career of a seasoned performer with multiple credits to their name. Most impressive are child actors Liam Diaz, Anna Claire Beitel, and Essence Fox playing the three main kids Bing, Laura, and Sylvie. The many facets of this story are funneled through their perspectives, which are quite different from one another. The neglect Laura experiences is absolutely heartbreaking to watch, and Beitel is unforgettable in this role. Also wonderful are Fox and Diaz, who bring a wholehearted quality to their roles and just light up the screen. One of the most heartwarming moments arrives at the end with Diaz’s school talent show rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody,’ a balm for the soul. An instant crowd pleasing moment.
Told with care, Scarborough gives visibility and depth to a multi-faceted community of people in a combative environment. It’s a wholehearted look at how people in close proximity to each other come together, and shines a light on those who are contributing acts of goodness in this world while facing hardships of their own. Hard to watch at times, given the unflinching look at an abusive household. Also remarkably grounded, not exaggerated and played for dramatic effect. This is a story with a lot to love, and a lot of love to give. Scarborough shows the resilience of a community, with beautiful incorporation of children and adults’ perspectives.