Sammy Smalls (Cristin Milioti) has spent the last little while working as store security in a supermarket, mostly busting seniors who try to smuggle out slabs of meat. She takes her job seriously, but it’s really just a convenient place to hide while she tries to decide what to do with her life, simultaneously battling her neuroses (she has serious body-image issues) and her meddling parents. But the primary reason she stays is Eugene, the neighbourhood busker. Unfortunately, Eugene (Mark Rendall) has a rock band that is about to take off, and he’s been spending a lot of time with hipsters and groupies – people far less needy and complicated than Sammy.
Quirky, surprising and relentlessly charming, Year of the Carnivore is the Canadian cousin of recent American indies like Me and You and Everyone We Know. Though it focuses primarily on Sammy and her on-again, off-again relationship with the vacillating Eugene, the film also offers a sly, cross-sectional critique of contemporary society. It takes shots at the terrified and increasingly neurotic middle class, our consumerist culture (Eugene’s conservative, Old World father seems obsessed with Ikea), hipster posing, current sexual mores and unrealizable expectations.
Though she’s only made a handful of works in short formats (including Girl Cleans Sink and a section of last year’s Toronto Stories), Sook-Yin Lee has already staked out specific territory and themes. Her characters are customarily bohemians (or bohemians by default, like Sammy) and caught in holding patterns – usually trapped in dead-end jobs and emotionally adrift. Though intimately aware of her characters’ foibles, Lee has a genuine sense of sympathy for those in transition.
Exquisitely paced and written, Year of the Carnivore boasts charming performances by the two leads and a string of memorable cameos, particularly from Sheila McCarthy and Kevin McDonald as Sammy’s parents. But it is the film’s pervasive sense of affection and its quizzical, befuddled humour that make it one of the more winning debuts by an English Canadian filmmaker in recent years. —tiff.net
Sook-Yin Lee was born in Vancouver. She worked as a VJ for MuchMusic, and is currently the host of Definitely Not the Opera on CBC Radio. In 2006, she starred in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. Her short films include Girl Cleans Sink (04), Unlocked (05) and a segment of the omnibus film Toronto Stories (08), all of which screened at the Festival. Year of the Carnivore (09) is her feature-directing debut. –tiff.net