In Sherry White's directorial debut, Crackie, the feature film's main character, Mitsy, wears a red coat. But she does more than just put it on for a few scenes: She recedes into it. The winterwear envelops Mitsy, becoming part---an emblem---of the character, played by Meaghan Greeley.
"That red jacket that she wears, which I loved, was a last-minute thing," says White, on the phone from Toronto. The St. John's-based actor, who also wrote Crackie, worked most of this past summer in preparation for various festival screenings across the country (Toronto, Halifax, Vancouver and Calgary, where it's the opening film).
"It just pops. It's perfect for the colours of the film," adds White.
Afterwards, on the line from St. John's, Charlotte Reid, the costume designer on Crackie, recalls the coat. "It was bright red but it was sad. It was so faded. We said it was [Mitsy's] security blanket," says Reid, who also designs clothes for her own Charlotte Street label.
While it carries a symbolic weight, the winterwear doesn't outweigh the other visual elements related to and set around Mitsy, the person at the core of this story about a young woman's uncertain, but nonetheless determined, effort to end a family's losing streak: A legacy of women making mistakes that end up defining them and shaping their lives. Mitsy lives with her grandmother, Bride (Mary Walsh). Both her parents are gone----her mom Gwennie (Cheryl Wells) away from Newfoundland to Alberta for the hoped-for better life.
Mitsy decides to become a hairdresser and enrolls at a local college. In one scene, she's at the student loan office. "I remember looking at her one time in that scene and she's sitting there eating that bag of chips and I could just watch her forever," White says, giggling. "And I finally started to laugh and said, 'You really get my sense of humour don't you?' There's nothing about that scene that should be funny, but she's just sitting there and eating those chips and she's so curious, and looking around, and feeling uncomfortable and nervous, and eatin' her chips, and as she's called up she takes a bite of the chip and puts half the chip back in the bag."
A theatre student at Grenfell College in Cornerbook, on the west side of Newfoundland, Meghan Greeley delivered the essence of Mitsy right there, says White. "And I just love that she got that. I wanted that little moment. Because that's one of the joys of life: eatin' a bag of chips. For a lot of people, that is the highlight of their day: just eatin' a bag of chips. That she was able to fill in that moment and she didn't rush through it...I actually have 10 minutes of her eatin' those chips just because I wouldn't call cut because I was havin' so much fun watching her eat those chips."
The string of giggles spools out into a full flight of laughter on both ends of the line. Crackie scores many comedic points, though the laughs emerge from a sense of discomfort and pain.
Not a stated comedy---though some festival programmers have referred to it as a "dark comedy," according to White---there's a simple, plaintive reason for the film. "That core desire for connection is a big motivation for the story," says White.
Mitsy tries to connect with her dog, a "crackie" or mutt, whom she gets from local letch Duffy (Joel Hynes).
Several years ago, when off-screen couple Hynes and White were having a child together, their work often had them apart. "I was pregnant and he was away. I was alone with my dog, who wasn't a great dog," recounts White. "I loved her very much but she just didn't love back. She was just interested in food and runnin'. I was the thing that kept her from doing what she wanted to do."
"I remember leaning under the bed trying to get the dog to come out from under it to come and have a snuggle with me. The dogwas giving me the blank stare and wanted nothing to do with me."
It's suggested that some pets, like some people, are just jerks. "Yeah," White says, feigning exasperation, "'I'm trying to give you some love there, asshole!"
The dog is a small but important thing White extracted from her life for the film. Of course, the canine wants nothing to do with Mitsy, despite her desparate attempts to build an affectionate bond between them.
Similarly, another Newfoundland feature, Grown Up Movie Star, explores the innate desire to connect to others and, through that, to truly know and to accept others and oneself. A story sewn up with humour and heaviness, too, it's the first feature directed by Adriana Maggs, actor, writer, best friend, co-creator (the awesome Rabbittown, which aired a few years ago on CBC TV) and costar (in that project and on another past CBC series, Mary Walsh's Hatching, Matching and Dispatching) to White.
Again, clothing helps make the character in Grown Up Movie Star. "The fact that everyone was dressed really brightly and really unusually against the really barren winter was important to me," says Maggs, who now lives in Toronto.
Maggs wanted her protagonist Ruby (another arguable breakout by a young actor, Tatiana Maslany) to "stand out as a kind of misfit in the town." Ruby lives with her father Ray (Shawn Doyle), a former hockey star who should have made all of Newfoundland proud, and her quiet but observant sister Rose (another adept newcomer, Julia Kennedy).
An eccentric in demeanour and dress, Ruby piles on layers, so it helped that the story takes place in winter. In terms of character, it was a way to show how "she stands out as a kind of misfit in the town." Ruby combines, matches and mismatches pieces into cool and inventive outfits.
"She's pushing her limits, experimenting," says Charlotte Reid, who also worked as costume designer on Grown Up Movie Star, or GUMS as she calls it for short. "Most of the stuff for GUMS---half of Tatiana's wardrobe---was from Value Village," Reid says, adding she accented with a "wristie" or scarf she designed for her Charlotte Street label. (Mitsy's red coat came from, Reid was pretty sure, a vintage and secondhand shop in St. John's called Previously Loved.)
Of course, Ruby's a kid, in her early-to mid-teens. Her choices, whether in clothes or behaviour (flirting with an older man, a friend of her father's), reflect that. There's a double entendre to the visual cues of her clothes. She wears a coat with a fur collar and oversized sunglasses, seemingly with style and ease: a confident kid. But at the same time, she selects the outfit with the attendant childlike need for attention and affection, from her preoccupied father and her absentee mother (an aspiring but broken actor played by none other than Sherry White, who takes off for LA early in the film). Ruby wears her mom's nightgown, which, Maggs points out, is a few sizes too big.
Ruby's fashion-forward instinct and appearance and her kookiness (freaking out the nice boy from Colorado, the non-glamourous part of middle America) are mixed up with her dreams of notoriety and stardom. The film moves forward on Ruby's struggle to realize this is who she is, not who she's supposed to be to become famous, as she goes online to build her image.
"I did want to acknowledge that we're in that world right now, without making a movie that was preachy about kids, celebrity and the internet," says Maggs. "Right now, we live in an intense celebrity culture. We have so much access to what celebrities are doing. And with reality TV you get the impression that it's really easy to become a celebrity."
You don't even need skills or talent. Ruby knows this, but not the dangerous implications of it. "You just have to be noticed and flashy and sexual and sexy," says Maggs.
In preparing to play Ruby, Tatiana Maslany evaluated clothes like a pro, recalls Reid. "When you meet the person and see how they're going to approach the character, that helps," the costume designer says.
For her role as Mitsy's grandmother in Crackie, Mary Walsh worked closely with Reid on wardrobe, recalls White. "Mary Walsh is very hands-on with what she wears," she says. Her character, Bride, is "every kind of woman." She's the tough nut wielding the axe to split wood for the stove whose fists fly when Mitsy's mom shows up back home from Alberta. She's the caretaker-grandma, standing in for the absentee mom, and the sexual being---a distorted, disgraced version thereof, as some in the town see it. "She's kind of larger than life," White says. "We wanted to show that but not have it be ridiculous or over the top."
Bride was an "extremely complex" character for Reid to pin down. Not only did the clothing have to reflect the layers of her character, Reid points out, "They found all their clothes in the garbage." Mitsy and Bride live in a house neighbouring a dump.
Walsh, who also has a smaller, more subdued role in Grown Up Movie Star, brings her usual intensity to Crackie, but she cuts back the fierceness by adding a sense of unspoken---or internalized---sadness and desperate hope in Mitsy, being the one to break the chain of experience and events.
Maggs and White share a great respect for Walsh and, at the same time, enthusiasm and excitement for the young stars of their films: young women with tons of talent and heads on straight about the path ahead.
Both on screen and off, one generation follows another.
Grown Up Movie Star
Sunday, September 20, 7pm, Park Lane 8