Toronto Director Places City at Centre Stage in Debut Feature “Waiting for Summer”

Senthil Vinu’s debut feature, Waiting for Summer, is a visual love letter to Toronto.

In the establishing shot for his entry into the 2012 Canadian Film Festival, the city of Toronto’s skyline fills the screen, and water from the lake laps around the edges of the frame, as the gently bobbing perspective gives the viewer the impression of arriving upon the city by ferry.

This is followed by lingering shots of familiar Toronto locales and icons – the CN Tower, Chinatown, Kensington Market, Tim Horton’s, the ubiquitous red TTC streetcars – and as the Canadian Film Festival director noted, this is Toronto finally playing itself, instead of being used as a substitute for yet another American city.

“Toronto plays Toronto, Canadians play Canadians, Canadian money plays Canadian money,” he said in an introduction that garnered a round of applause when the premiere screening of Waiting for Summer kicked off on Friday, March 30 at the Royal Cinema.

The Canadian Film Festival is a festival for Canadian films by Canadian filmmakers. This is what distinguishes it from any of the many other film festivals that happen in the city. With its lush cinematography and gorgeous depiction of the city of Toronto, it’s no wonder that Waiting for Summer became the festival’s first sold out screening. On the website for the festival, it describes the mission as such:

“We elevate Canadian film as an art and as a viable commercial force by exposing the public to innovative films created outside of the ‘Hollywoo’ norm.”

This statement applies perfectly to Waiting for Summer because it is a film about love – but perhaps not in the way you might think.

The marketing indicates a movie in the age-old tradition of two strangers meeting serendipitously and falling in love, and then allowing the story to go from there. The film itself borrows from themes of romantic drama, including visual tropes from that masterpiece of modern romance, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and there is nothing in the poster (which features a prominent photo of lead actors Caleb Verzyden and Virginia Leigh) nor in the film’s trailer that suggests the film is anything but a romantic drama. However, once the film starts, it becomes clear that the story deviates from the norm (while still paying homage to the genre) by establishing a centre of focus away from the pair as a romantic couple, and instead on the fractured relationships they each have with their respective parents. The story breaks from the familiar narrative to create a non-linear tale of love in the sense of familial bonds, where deep emotional wounds have to heal before any other love can be formed.

The first voice you hear is a young woman’s, in a voice-over explaining her story – an introduction of sorts. Chantal (Virginia Leigh) is a marriage counsellor living in Montreal, but a postcard from her long-estranged musician father convinces her that he is ready to come back into the lives of her and her mother. So she picks up and moves to Toronto to try and find him.

Chantal is an idealistic young woman. In an early counselling scene, while her married clients fight across from her, her thoughts in a voice-over indicate how cute she thinks their bickering is, just like her parents did when she was young.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, a young man named Zach (Caleb Verzyden) is gathering his things to go backpacking in India. A video blogger, his backstory is narrated into a small camcorder as he details his plans to his online followers. But for multiple reasons, his trip is endlessly postponed, and early on it is revealed that he has a fractured relationship with his mother, whom he has not spoken to in years.

“She’s an alcoholic and an actress. It’s a sick combination, like beer before liquor.”

Little details reveal, which despite his enforced estrangement from his mother, she is never far from his mind. His daily activities are often punctuated by flashbacks to a strained life with his single mother, where she projected onto him not just her love for film, but also her huge insecurities as a struggling actress.

Before long, the twin threads of Zach’s and Chantal’s stories weave their way together, but not necessarily the way one would think.

You see, this not a love story in your typical sense, but it is a story about love, and also about serendipity. As Chantal searches the city’s music cafés and bars for her musician father, Paul Cartier, Zach encounters a man handing out flyers to his show – named Paul Cartier. When Chantal puts up a poster on the wall of her favourite musician, Henry Stenfold, and listens to seven-inch records of his music, a chance encounter outside an ailing neighbour’s door introduces Zach to the man himself, now old and sick, ready to move on from life with no regrets. The point where it becomes a little bit over-the-top is when the audience, and Chantal herself, realize that she and Zach live right next door to each other, but even that fits in perfectly with the film’s narrative.

When the couple finally end up together – after Zach locks his bike to hers in an attempt to start a conversation – they go out on a date that has all the ingredients of a perfect Hollywood romance. A montage of scenes ensues: downtown Toronto, the ferry ride to the Toronto Islands, strolling across the windy beach, dancing to the acoustic strumming of a busker on the beach, and Chantal revealing a hidden singing talent as Zach films her rendition of a song she wrote herself. In an overhead shot cheekily ripped straight out of the storyboard for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the two lie on the sand, head to head, and listen to music from Zach’s iPod.

However, when Chantal overhears an angry phone exchange between Zach and his mother, and he goes on to curse at the negative effect parents have on their kids, the entire day is soured. When he asks hopefully for another date at the end of the day, Chantal says, “My life is pretty complicated right now . . . I think it’s best if we leave it at that.”

Talk about a solid left hook to the jaw of audiences everywhere. The film takes viewer expectations and turns them on their head. Although I was left wondering where things would go after this, the bait and switch was not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it seemed to act as a catalyst for the events that later unfolded in the narrative.

Visually, the film is stunning. Gorgeously shot on the much-lauded RED camera, according to snippets from cinematographer Brian Pryzpek’s Vimeo page, the scenes are suffused with crisp light, the depth of field shows off the colour play of the softened light in the background, and images are rendered in perfectly controlled clarity.

The cinematography also contributes to a visual understanding of the characters’ emotional axis at any given moment. At the beginning of the film, after Chantal unpacks in her new apartment in Toronto and puts up a poster of her favourite singer from the ’60s, Henry Stenfold, she wakes up to the breaking dawn and is compelled to dance in front of the huge windows overlooking the city. Her feelings of buoyancy and hope are perfectly captured by overlapping, ethereal images of her swaying, turning figure silhouetted against the morning light coming through the window.

After Zach finally gets up the nerve to sell his stuff in order to embark on his backpacking adventure, he reflects on his life and how he seems to just be spinning his wheels. The scene then shows him riding his bike in circles around his newly emptied living room. While perhaps a bit too literal, this scene has the camera tracking him from inside the circuit he makes as he rides around the room, and then rewinds the shot in a move reminiscent of one of the final scenes of Eternal Sunshine.

This is a film that, visually, draws heavily from other well-known film romances. From the title, Waiting for Summer, and the use of explanatory inter-titles (“Winter,” “Spring”), a casual observer might be tempted to draw the conclusion that this is a romantic drama in the same vein as the Joseph Gordon-Levitt-led 500 Days of Summer – and similarly, it isn’t your typical love story. But that is where the resemblance ends.

The ingredients are there: You have a young man and a young woman, two people trying to find their place in the city and in the world, who through a series of serendipitous misses, eventually encounter each other and a spark is struck. However, they are both carrying so much emotional baggage (courtesy of Zach’s relationship with his mother and Chantal’s relationship with her father), that before any love can bloom between them, they first need to tend to the stunted areas of growth in their emotional lives.

In Waiting for Summer, the primary questions of love exist in the context of the difficult love that often exists between fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons. The film explores the lengthy repercussions, echoing well into adulthood, of parental dysfunction and the harsh ways it can affect the children at the centre of it.

In Zach’s case, one gets the impression that he is constantly trying to escape his mother’s oppressive personality. In a series of flashbacks woven arbitrarily throughout the film, artfully shot from his child-size perspective in home video style using a shaky camcorder, Zach reveals the ways in which his mother influenced and alienated him. When she was sober, he was conscripted into helping her film desperate-seeming demo tapes in an attempt to further her faltering career. When she was drunk, however, Zach loved her more because she herself became more loving. They would order takeout and sit and watch movies for hours on end, and she would become his wise guide to the world of film, instilling an early love for the medium in him, which would later lead him to quit his job in finance for a chance at being a filmmaker.

However, the bad inevitably outweighed the good, as one telling flashback reveals. Coming across his mother’s inert body passed out drunk on the couch, the young, camera-holding Zach asks in an initially petulant, but increasingly concerned voice, “Mom, Mom . . . I’m hungry . . . Are you okay?”

Years later in the present, Zach refuses to take calls from her, even when her new husband seeks him out at the film set where he works, to reveal that she has been hospitalized. This makes Zach seem like a first-class jerk, until you realize that his tortured relationship with his often manipulative mother has left him with conflicting feelings towards her. He does eventually call the hospital, but as soon as he confirms that she is fine, he hangs up – even though she has just come on the phone to speak to him. This emotional turmoil is something he prefers to suppress in lieu of an endless search for self-actualization, hence the backpacking trip to India that never seems to materialize.

Conversely, Virginia Leigh’s Chantal is willing to go to any length to reconnect with her father, who left her and her mother when she was a child. A great deal of the early part of the film is dedicated to her search for him. She checks the local music listings in the free dailies, she tracks down where he last played (a Kensington Market café that had since been turned into a clothing store run by a young couple, who turn out to be Zach’s close friends), and she eventually tracks down the last place he lived. But this is where the viewer begins to get an idea that her romanticized image of her father as a glamorous travelling musician might be a little too idealized.

Her father’s former roommate, a sleazy, lecherous fellow, advises her that her father skipped out on him owing him $100. She reluctantly hands over $20 and leaves to continue her search. When she eventually does locate her father and tries to convince him to try and have another go at things with her mother, because of the love that still exists between them, he implies that she doesn’t know the whole story and should let things lie.

“You care about some people by being with them,” he says. “With others, it’s better from a distance.”

His words neatly sum up the crux of the problem this film seeks to explore. It seems to say, it would have been better for Zach to seek out his mother, and for Chantal to let her relationship with her father happen from a distance.

In the end, even the resolution isn’t as cut and dried as films would normally make it. There is no real resolution of parental issues either way. In fact, Zach’s mother dies unexpectedly before he has a chance for full closure. In this way, the film is more like real life than a structured movie narrative, and drives home the truth that sometimes just wanting something to happen doesn’t mean it’s going to – as Chantal finally accepts after she realizes that her father never means to settle down, despite her deepest wishes.

But in a sense, this realness is also the strength of the film. The final scenes, appropriately pre-empted by the inter-title “Spring,” signal an end to old concerns and a chance at new directions in life. Chantal, prompted by the one disastrous date with Zach, has decided to pursue music full-time, forming a band with the busker they met at the Cherry Island beach, and Zach himself finally gets his act together and embarks on his trip to India.

Before he leaves though, serendipity steps in once again as they re-encounter each other at the funeral for Henry Stenfold, who had wanted a “New Orleans-type of funeral,” and in homage to him, a group of friends and admirers have gathered to sing and dance around his grave site.

Chantal and Zach, no longer bound by their parental issues, and newly focused on the next phase of their lives, are finally ready to give each other a chance.

But that is a story for another film.