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Spiritually Weak

You-can-live-forever-movie-review-anwen-odriscoll-june-laporte
Robert Vroom

MOVIE REVIEW
You Can Live Forever (2022)

Teenage romance is tricky. Either it’s a couple of kids messing around, practicing at love, or it’s unexpectedly real and overwhelming, with serious long-term consequences. How those consequences are handled depends on the kids. Some are mature enough to understand what’s happening and prepared to gamble their life on this early throw of the dice, and others are naïve, both about themselves as well as the wider world. And what most kids don’t realize is there are always adults observing, especially in a small town in Quebec in the early 1990s. It’s even more fraught when a large part of the town are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian sect most notable for proselytizing to strangers and not celebrating holidays, including birthdays. “You Can Live Forever,” shown as part of the Tribeca Festival, is interested in figuring out whether it’s possible for a believer and a nonbeliever ever to be happy together. The fact that the teenage romantics are both 17-year-old girls is almost beside the point.

Jaime (Anwen O’Driscoll) has been sent to stay with her Aunt Beth (Liane Balaban, more on whom later) and Beth’s husband Jean-François (Antoine Yared) after her father’s death and her mother’s resulting breakdown. Her aunt and uncle are serious about their faith – which Jaime does not share – and politely insist both that Jaime joins them at biweekly church services and wear a dress while she does it. At least the dress isn’t frilly, as Beth cheerily points out. Since Jaime loves them and knows the importance of minding her manners she is willing to make the best of it. At the first service she notices Marike (June Laporte), the pastor’s daughter, a devout young miss who doesn’t mind having no friends since her faith is all she needs. Marike’s mother was thrown out of church, family and town years ago, so her older sister Amanda (Deragh Campbell) had to do her raising. Everyone is delighted Jaime and Marike quickly become fast friends, but only Amanda is crass enough to openly wonder why Jaime isn’t a full member of the church. But while Jaime is politely firm that she isn’t a believer, Marike keeps coming up with churchy things for them to do together, to which Jaime always acquiesces.

It slowly becomes obvious that everyone in town can see exactly what’s happening between the girls except Marike herself. She treats their small, incremental romantic encounters – fingers touching on the backseat of a car, a quick kiss on the walk home from Bible study – as if they aren’t happening even as she initiates them. Gayle Ye’s cinematography is clever at discreetly capturing the vital moments. Jaime is into whatever games Marike is playing, but also bewildered that she doesn’t seem to understand the contradiction between her faith and her sexuality. Since the surface proprieties are observed none of the adults say anything, at least not until Jaime’s friend Nathan (Hasani Freeman) buys her a piece of birthday cake.

It’s hard to believe something as small as a piece of cake could cause several lives to unravel, but more have been ruined for less. The undercurrents of disapproval aimed at Jaime seem to be because of her grunge clothes and lack of faith, which leaves the audience to wonder whether lesbianism is so taboo hatred of it doesn’t need to be spoken. Of course, this being Canada, everyone is faultlessly polite. What is never made clear is why Amanda – who’s a pill, but also significantly savvier than Marike, and with little obvious reason to hold her tongue – doesn’t do something with what she knows. Mark Slutsky and Sarah Watts, who codirected and cowrote the script, pull focus from Jaime’s point of view only once, for a scene of Amanda interrupting Marike in the bath, which turns into a talk about their mother’s absence. Since earlier scenes between Marike and Jaime established this already, it’s a badly missed opportunity to delve into the rapport between these lonely young women, neither of whom seem fully sure that their faith is enough to sustain them; and neither of whom have the words to discuss their feelings with their most obvious confidante.

What works much better are the scenes between Jaime and Beth. Ms. O’Driscoll and Ms. Balaban have a genuine chemistry and their friendly, understanding intimacy is heartening to watch. Beth and Jaime like each other; and even when they don’t understand each other’s choices, they respect each other. But the big revelation of what Beth knows is left till it’s too late, both for the characters and for the film. The fact that Beth doesn’t meddle is admirable, but her silence also means Jaime is left to struggle with some life-changing news with only Nathan’s feeble advice. It’s strange, because Ms. Balaban easily makes the contradictions in Beth’s life – the importance of her faith, her genuine love for Jaime, her awareness of the wider world and her sadness about her choice not to have children – feel organic, as well as showing her good cheer is part of deliberate decisions to be kind. It’s unusual to see a movie not about religion understand the inner nature of faith; and it’s equally rare to see a performance embody that as well as Ms. Balaban’s, so it’s disappointing that the movie cheats her and the character both.

Because “You Can Live Forever” cleaves so closely to Jaime’s point of view, Ms. O’Driscoll has an easier time of conveying Jaime’s thoughtfulness and maturity, but the movie is weirdly dismissive of her grief and her mother’s absence, which is not very realistic. Ms. Laporte has the harder part, of a booksmart young woman slowly realising that faith is merely a framework for personal ideas, not the other way around, who has no idea of what to do with that knowledge. Unfortunately it’s not until the coda, when the impact that lack of understanding has had is brutally clear, that Ms. Laporte gets to truly show what she can do. It's a pity that neither the script nor the directors made things easier for her.

This is a lot of complaining about a thoughtful movie that’s unusual for taking both religion and its teenage heroes seriously, but a little less restraint and a little more teenage melodrama would have made its points more effectively. The show-stopping sequence, when Jaime and Marike are on a double date with boys from church to see “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” is so tactfully done the point is easy to miss. Although of course, if you don’t know what two girls can get up into in a movie theater bathroom stall, you shouldn’t be watching this in the first place.

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