Coming-of-age teen dramas are a dime a dozen, but when they’re executed with a little care and compassion, there are few genres that are more skilled at drilling straight to the heart.
Emerson (Aaron Webber) is an intelligent, sophisticated 13 year-old, just putting the finishing touches on his first fantasy novel. Home-schooled by his green-thinking, hippie parents (Rebecca Jenkins and Robert Joy), Emerson is about to taste his first dose of reality when he’s pushed into attending public school. There, he meets Don Grant (Daniel MacIvor, who also co-scripted), an English teacher who can barely keep his own life together, much less teach a classroom of bored kids. Emerson is attracted to Grant, but doesn’t know how to express it, sending him on passage of self-discovery that opens the sheltered teen’s eyes to the cruelties of life.
Shot in Nova Scotia, “Whole New Thing” is a Canadian indie production that speaks very softly on matters of the heart. Co-writer/director Amnon Buchbinder isn’t preoccupied with wild tangents of melodrama or sensationalized instances of sexuality; everything in the film feels organic and instinctive. Only when the film needs to point itself towards an ending do some scripted elements become too assertive. Overall, Buchbinder’s direction creates a tremendous sense of location and adolescent awkwardness that blossoms beautifully during the picture.
“Thing” is predominately a character piece, observing lives that are caught in turmoil and eroding from lack of self-inspection. The screenplay investigates these emotions beautifully, paying attention to behavioral nuance and misguided passes at expression. The performances match the writing in the way they articulate through body language the discomfort and alienation of being a sheltered teen in public school, a married couple testing their devotion, and a gay school teacher with a taste for risky sex to fill a void in his wounded heart.
Buchbinder maintains an intimate scope for his film to better extract the seeds of doubt from the characters, and I was almost completely taken with the way “Thing” showcased so many cliches without getting carried away with itself. Especially with Emerson, the lure of turning his affections into a jailbait “Degrassi” fiasco must’ve been overwhelming. The writers, perhaps taking a cue from the life of “Eragon” author Christopher Paolini (the backstory similarities are there), make an exhaustive effort to keep Emerson complex and real, and not an immediate basket case. He bruises easily and doesn’t always understand his urges, yet his intelligence is always there to help, making for a fascinating character study of hesitation and pubescent unease.
“Whole New Thing” heads to some very interesting emotional places, and through fine direction, captures a feeling of wintry place and heated frustrations that is enormously compelling. It’s a film of small intentions, yet the dramatic rewards are mighty.Rating: A-