Internationally acclaimed Canadian visual artist Sheila Pye’s directorial debut, The Young Arsonists, is a lyrical slow-burning exploration of teenage angst. A psychological coming-of-age drama with elements of magic realism, this captivating cinematic spectacle explores the themes of adolescence, friendship and emotional trauma as a result of poverty, death and abuse. After its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the film bowed to Estonian audiences at the 26th Black Nights Film Festival.
Set in the 1980s in a gritty rural milieu of an isolated farming community, The Young Arsonists affectingly describes a summer when four adolescent girls (Nicole, Veronica, Amber and Sara) escaping their troubled lives, traumas and patriarchal constraints come together by reclaiming an abandoned farmhouse as their own. Their friendship and relationships with one another are both strengthened and tested over the course of this particular summer.
Pye works with ideas of nature, womanhood and the supernatural in her haunting film. In that sense, crafted with striking surreal imagery and narrated by Nicole through her diary entries accompanied by stunning sequences of colored smoke wafting across the screen signaling the passage of one day to the next, this delicate touch gives the film an otherworldly aesthetic, anchored in reality by the dilapidated house that, in turn, has its own supernatural characteristic. The Young Arsonists time and time again prioritizes symbolism, allegories and form over realism. In fact, the magical realism and the power of female community (and its healing power) in The Young Arsonists is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and a bit more distantly Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang.
Not only does Pye re-examine gender roles here, but she also explores the biological phenomenon of women’s bodies syncing together through pheromones. Indeed, as the story progresses, the four friends create their own utopian world free from social restrictions, thus giving the director ample room to voice her discontent with cliched norms and practices and the rules women are brought up to live by, and the scope of her patriarchal deconstruction is wide: she tackles the girls’ first period, their battle with abuse, the pain of home, oppressive church doctrines, death, the conflict between hanging on to grief, to a lost family member or a lost home and moving on. In pressing upon the defining moments in the life of a young woman, the film deals with the complexity of youth and acknowledges the audience’s personal experiences that in turn provide them with a specific understanding of the film, thus mirroring the sort of healing community that these women so desperately need and find. It is a film that gives its protagonists (and all the girls in the world) the opportunity to take their voices back and the compassion they profusely deserve and are so worthy of.
However, it is true that – and that is a pity –, Pye loses the thread of her storytelling in the haziness of her filmmaking, giving us the impression that the sensations the latter provokes are more important than the plot. But no matter. What this film makes us feel is equally important as how it looks even when the plot slackens, leaving us utterly enthralled by the aforementioned filmmaking as well as the cast’s explosive performances. Indeed, with fresh new faces, Pye chose her cast discerningly. Maddy Martin, Jenna Warren, Sadie Rose and Madison Baines reverberate with genuine comradeship, be it in good times or bad. All the performances of the four leads are bombastic and nuanced with a natural feel, while Pye’s directing is assured and with an authentic vision, albeit sometimes unfocused. Tom Third’s lush yet somewhat haunting score coupled with songs by Joy Division or Brian Eno amongst others, together with Michael LeBlanc’s whimsical and dreamlike lensing and Anahita Dehbonehie’s sublimely rural and atmospheric production design powerfully contribute to the film’s distinctly oneiric vision.
Full of haunting imagery, The Young Arsonists is a visually arresting, extraordinary and profoundly evocative debut by a promising director and an outstanding visual artist. And, I simply cannot wait to see what she does next.
Production: Borrowed Light Films, Hawkeye Pictures (Canada, 2022). Producers: Sonya Di Rienzo, Aeschylus Poulos, Agata Smoluch Del Sorbo. Executive producers: Martin Katz, Karen Wookey. Director: Sheila Pye. Screenplay: Sheila Pye. Cinematography: Michael LeBlanc. Production Design: Anahita Dehbonehie. Score: Tom Third. Editing: Lev Lewis.
Cast: Maddy Martin (Nicole), Jenna Warren (Veronica), Sadie Rose (Amber), Madison Baines (Sara), Aaron Poole (Dale), Miranda Calderon (May), Kyle Meagher (Seamus), Measha Brueggergosman (Debbie), Robin Skye Farr (Siobhan), Maxim Respublicanschii (Mennonite Child), Dawson Boughner (Cashier), Lorcan DaSilva Déiseach (Brendan)
Color – 97 min. Premiere: 11-IX-2022 (Toronto International Film Festival)