‘A nostalgic, romantic love letter . . . to the esthetic of strip malls in Scarborough’
Glamour of the big screen casts spotlight on Wexford Heights Plaza
In a world where highrise condos are king and big box stores reign, a run-of-the-mill strip mall in Scarborough stands alone. It’s a land where small businesses triumph, and owners still know their customers’ names. This is Wexford Heights Plaza.
That’s what a trailer for a film set at a Scarborough strip mall might sound like — and now, there actually is one.
The glamour of the big screen has cast its spotlight on the nonchalant strip mall at Warden Ave. and Lawrence Ave. E., thanks to Wexford Plaza, an offbeat independent comedy bearing its name.
“It’s a kind of nostalgic, romantic love letter . . . to the esthetic of strip malls in Scarborough,” filmmaker Joyce Wong said.
“That ’50s and ’60s idealism, but then intersected with this kind of immigrant American dream.”
The film is set in a “dilapidated but beautiful” strip mall in Scarborough, and stars a lonely female security guard who has a misunderstood sexual encounter with a makeup salesman.
Wong said the idea of being the underdog is part of the movie’s appeal.
“While growing up in Scarborough, you kind of always felt like you were left behind,” she said.
“You were kind of outside of what was really going on, outside of the main — whatever the main was. So I feel like that was what was appealing to a lot of the people . . . who have connected with this.”
The comedy about the well-meaning romance plays out at a place called Wexford Plaza. While sharing the same name, Wong said her movie wasn’t based on the real-life version, and that it could have been any strip mall in Scarborough.
“I was just kind of playing around with different names, like Bridlewood, Agincourt, Tuxedo Court,” she said. “I felt that Wexford, as a general area, kind of fit the most.”
The real Wexford Heights Plaza is filled with scenes of ordinary life at small retailers like a vacuum store, computer repair shop and bakery among others.
In 1958, the Kiriakou family purchased the plaza’s Wexford Restaurant. They bought the entire plaza decades later. Today, Tony Kiriakou says business is booming in Scarborough.
“Everybody says Scarborough is a bad town, a bad neighbourhood,” Kiriakou said. “Scarborough is a good neighbourhood.”
About 20 tenants make up the strip mall community.
In a shop overfilling with computers and tech equipment, Babar Ma- lik, of United Computer Business Inc., called his 4 1⁄ years at the plaza
2 “very good.”
A few businesses down, Fred Saboohi of Cas Co. Sign & Print took a break from working in the back of his store to call the plaza “perfect,” with good people and a good owner.
It’s an old plaza with a history, he said. “Most plazas, like this plaza, they destroy it and make it condominiums,” Saboohi said. “But this is still here.”
Patrick James, co-owner of the plaza’s Electrolux Service Centre, said the business has been there for 14 years.
“There was a vacuum store in this plaza before and they had closed down,” James said when asked about his store’s beginnings. “They were here for about 20-something years. So we wanted to come in, because people are accustomed to that store.
“So that’s why we came here. And you find that people are coming back now.”
He added that he thought the Wexford Plaza film would be good for business.
Wong, who grew up in Scarborough and now lives in Toronto’s west end, studied film at York University. In her youth, she had starkly different experiences at Scarborough strip malls.
There was the strip mall she walked to with friends in Grade 8, to buy lunch and cigarettes.
“It was kind of a cool space for us to hang out, outside of our super conservative Catholic schoolyard,” she recalled.
“And then there’s this other plaza, where when my mom picked me up and we went home, that she would always stop at to do dry cleaning and stuff,” Wong said.
“That plaza, I remember just sitting there and waiting in the car and reading my math homework or whatever. It was just kind of this draining, like, ‘ugh, I’m in Scarborough.’ ”
The film wasn’t shot in Wexford for logistical reasons — instead it was filmed at a plaza in North York, and other sites around the city.
The film has received rave reviews, with the Los Angeles Times describing it as “a fascinating perspective swap” with a “unique approach to storytelling and character building.” It has played at numerous film festivals across North America.
The performances of lead characters Betty, played by Reid Asselstine, and Danny, played by Darrel Gamotin, are described as “excellent,” the writing and editing as “careful,” and Wong “a major talent to watch.”
Wexford Plaza will be screened at Toronto’s Carlton Cinemas from Dec. 1 to 7.
The film Wexford Plaza, premiering next month, pays ode to Scarborough strip malls such as Wexford Heights Plaza.
Rakesh Kaul, left, and Patrick James are co-owners of Electrolux Service Centre, one of about 20 shops found in Wexford Heights Plaza.
Wexford Plaza stars Betty Reid Asselstine as Betty and Darrel Gamotin as Danny. The film premieres in Toronto on Dec. 1 at Carlton Cinemas.