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Paternity Test

Courtesy of TIFF

This Place (2022)

“This Place” is a sweet but slight movie that does itself no favors with the generic title. Its explorations of what it means to be Canadian – more accurately, a person who happens to be growing up in Canada who is neither white nor straight – hold a great deal of interest. That’s hampered by the fact that director V. T. Nayani, who cowrote the script with fast-rising star Devery Jacobs and Golshan Abdmoulaie (who also has a small part), has a sophomoric outlook. That’s not to say “This Place” is puerile, far from it. It’s only exactly what you would expect – a little narcissistic, a little exhausting – about 21-year-olds with complicated daddy issues. Of course there’s a lot of innate sympathy for any coming-of-age story. But how charming you find it usually depends on how much about life you’ve worked out for yourself.

They meet cute in a Toronto laundromat in 2011, when new arrival Kawenniióhstha (Ms. Jacobs) leaves behind her creative-writing notebook which Malai (Priya Guns) finds. To return the book they meet for a coffee, which turns into a friendship, which turns into something more. But not much more. It’s contained to significant hand-holding and some brushing of hair out of each other’s eyes – red-hot shit if you’re 13, but not so much when you’re in college. Their attraction to each other is secondary to their separate personal identity crises. Malai is excelling on her maths-based college studies and under pressure to continue to grad school, which her older brother Ahrun (Alex Joseph, wonderfully sarcastic) supports despite her guilt at not contributing to the household. Their mother died years ago so they only have each other, until their absentee father Jeyapillai (Muraly Srinarayanathas) resurfaces in a hospital with not long to live. Jeyapillai and his wife were Tamils, who fled Sri Lanka separately, married unhappily and gifted their children with a precarious sense of identity, of always being the embattled minority.

Meanwhile Kawenniióhstha has come to Toronto to study, but also to try to find her own father Behrooz (Ali Momen), who does not know she exists. Her mother Wari (Brittany LeBorgne), who is half-Mohawk, returned to her hometown during the Oka crisis in 1990 (so calmly depicted in the superb “Beans”) without knowing she was pregnant. Since Behrooz was an Iranian refugee, this means Kawenniióhstha’s Mohawk identity is seen as marginal; and Wari’s decision to raise her on a reservation with a Mohawk name and Mohawk as her first language is a fierce political choice. So Kawenniióhstha’s decision to study in the big city is seen by Wari as a rejection not only of her as a mother, but also of her personal identity. But Kawenniióhstha feels compelled to at least try to learn about her Iranian side, since knows nothing about Iranian culture, an awkward encounter in a Middle Eastern grocery store shakes her up; and she’s worried her father will not be happy that she exists.

This is all big stuff! Exactly the kind of thing college kids should spend hours sitting around talking about! The heroines are only beginning to understand of how their parents’ choices have shaped them. The main delight is that nobody, starting with Malai and Kawenniióhstha themselves, has an issue with homosexuality. It’s the only aspect of their identities which passes without comment, leaving their energies free to focus on their fathers. The pre-credits sequence establishes that Behrooz and Jeyapillai arrived in Toronto on the same plane, and Jeyapillai’s behavior at the airport enabled Behrooz to get past the border guards undetected. Their daughters never realize this, which is a missed opportunity; and it’s also desperately unfair to the mothers who were the ones who did their actual raising. But this movie has been built around the personal identities of Ms. Jacobs – who is herself half-Mohawk, half-Iranian - and the Tamil-Canadian Ms. Guns, which means that this is less an attempt to broaden the parameters of Canadian identity onscreen (as part of the Toronto International Film Festival) and more about working out some stuff for themselves. Malai sees herself as Tamil first, anti-British-empire second, and Canadian not really at all, while Kawenniióhstha being Indigenous doesn’t exactly wrap herself in the Canadian flag. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! For what it is, it’s well-made and engrossing, but it ends where it should have begun. What will life be like for Malai and Kawenniióhstha, separately or together, when their parents’ decisions fade into the background and the consequences of their own adult choices begin racking up? That might have been a more interesting question.

PS: this is the first movie I’ve ever seen which begins with a land acknowledgement; many more should do the same.


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