When Fern (Imajyn Cardinal) is sixteen, her mother has a fatal heart attack on the way home from her job as a cleaning lady, so headstrong and stubborn Fern drops out of school to support herself and avoid Youth Protection. It is winter in Montreal, a time of brutally cold weather that handily symbolizes Fern’s isolation and her stunned lack of affect. At first she cleans for her mother’s clients, telling them that she is filling in because her mother is sick. In one of the homes, she filches a book on how to become a millionaire and quickly determines to save a little every day, until she reaches that magic number, so as not to end up working herself to death for other people.
It’s a good plan in theory, but Fern is quickly in over her head. She lies about her age to get a job as a building superintendent so she can live rent-free. She is good at keeping the run-down building clean, but she doesn’t know anything about repair and maintenance, and some of the tenants are hostile with their demands. To save money on food, she gets another job in a restaurant, but she is always running late. Her boss, Hamidou (Hamidou Savadogo) is caring and friendly, but he also needs dependable employees, and Fern is just barely getting by physically and psychologically. She is constantly exhausted, and she is being aggressively courted by a skeevy twentysomething guy named Jeff (the unsettlingly good Alexandre Landry), who thinks she needs to “have some fun.” When her mother’s brother Jack (Brandon Oakes), shows up to visit and pay his respects, Fern is wary of trusting this hulking man she doesn’t know, a guy who used to drink too much and break the law but who now seems to have a spiritually wisesounding answer to everything. Written and directed by Wiebke von Carolsfeld,
is based on a young adult novel by Edeet Ravel. Fern’s Canadian First Nations identity isn’t part of the plot, but strains of classism and the various unstated biases of the people with whom she interacts run throughout the movie, as do Fern’s own prejudices. This compelling and unabashed tear-jerker is direct about the danger Fern is in but never graphic
or needlessly cruel. Performances are so natural that
sometimes feels like a documentary — though at certain crucial moments, the plot twists are a little too on the nose, as if there weren’t enough time to let the story unfold more naturally. But this is a small quibble in a well-acted, interesting movie that has great appeal for teenagers and their parents. Cardinal plays Fern as stoic, someone who prefers to take things in rather than give anything away. Her fear of being sent to foster care keeps her from telling anyone what she is going through. But if she can’t let her guard down with the right people and admit she needs help, she will most definitely follow in her mother’s footsteps. — J.L.