Review – Year of the Carnivore June 28, 2010

I really meant the last paragraph of this. Hugely disappointing.


One of the best parts of Year of the Carnivore is the poster. A scene illustrated by accomplished Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown (Ed The Happy Clown, Louis Riel), it’s not only excellently realized, but philosophically appropriate. Where Brown took a comic strip biography about Louis Riel and made it into a subtle look into the nature of that figure’s neurosis and psychology, Vancouver filmmaker Sook-Yin Lee (Shortbus) makes similar observations about Sammy Smalls (Cristin Millioti). Like a twee and twenty-something answer to 2007’s Young People Fucking, Year of the Carnivore explores the nature of adversarial sexuality at an awkward stage of adulthood and at the same time makes a statement about the current state of Canadian film art. The result, however, is almost as confused as its main character.

Sammy Smalls lost partial use of her leg fighting cancer as a child. Her overbearing narcissist mother and weakling father want her to quit her job as a grocery store “detective,” thinking that running down shoplifters stealing flank steaks is too dangerous for someone of her stature. The film’s runtime is preoccupied with Sammy getting “experienced.” That is, she hops from one awkward sexual encounter to the next in the hopes of getting good enough to impress a boy, Eugene (Mark Rendall). While these encounters are filmed in an attempt at humour, they’re incredibly hard to watch and leave you wanting to give Sammy a shake and ask her what the hell she is thinking. While this could be leveraged as good drama, it’s instead an air ball lobbed and missing its target through an unfocused script. If the aim was to instill Sammy’s sense of frustration onto the audience, it’s mission accomplished.

To be blunt, Cristin Millioti deserves to be a star. The amount of humanity and depth she gives to an uneasily written character is admirable and to not walk out of the theater impressed with her performance would be impossible. Her supporting cast (including Will Sasso) are fairly strong, but Sammy Smalls is a star-making role. It is unfortunate then, that the script and film as a whole (as beautifully shot as it is) do not elevate a commendable performance.

Sook-Yin Lee made waves a while back for taking part in sexual acts on film in Shortbus, an act that royally irked her employers at the CBC and made her a news story for a couple of months. But while that film took all the eroticism out of sex as a stated goal to explore sex-as-mechanics, Year of the Carnivore does the same with a shudder-inducing lack of compassion, a detachment that edges on sociopathy. Each of the characters operates out of a strange, intense selfishness that totally breaks any connection with the audience and shatters the suspension of disbelief with uncomfortable scoffs. Its disconnect with actual sexual relations between young people is disturbing and its attempts to be iconoclastic take priority over being entertaining. Most egregious is a scene that is tantamount to depicted rape, but its implication is that if a female is the aggressor, the male will just enjoy it. Were this reversed, the backlash would be deafening. While the film makes a half-assed attempt to call this action immoral, it seems to do so with fingers crossed behind its back, some dialogue thick with shallow psychoanalysis a stopgap for actual emotion.

Did I say scene? I meant scenes. Plural. In an attempt to be unique and edgy, it comes off as creepy and objectionable. With each scene of torrid sexuality, a clear attempt is made for a condom to be applied. This restraint and modesty is horribly Canadian and turns the confusion of youth into the measured mistakes of an adult. It’s personally destructive performance art, the conscious martyrdom of Sammy Smalls. This is a Woody Allen film, courtesy of the new millennium. Be afraid.

It seems impossible for a film to fail with such an interesting leading lady, but Year of the Carnivore does. It tries to preach a muddled philosophy (I still can’t figure out what it was trying to tell me. Convenience conquers love? Change yourself to gain the love of others? I have no idea) and attempts to be an uplifting tale of a young woman exploring her sexuality, but instead rings out like an exploitative farce. I’ve never wanted to love a film more, and have never been so sad to see one fall short.

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