June 19, 2010

Review: Sook-Yin Lee Celebrates the 'Year of the Carnivore'

"This isn't the normal way people learn about sex."

The Canadian independent film, Year of the Carnivore, written and directed by CBC radio host and former MuchMusic VJ, Sook-Yin Lee, is a very engaging, refreshingly entertaining, and naturalistic comedic drama that delves into the nature of modern sexual relationships from the perspective of an awkward, sexually immature young woman.

American actress Cristin Milloti plays Sammy Smalls, a 21-year-old grocery store detective in East Vancouver who starves for sexual maturity and intimacy going through a journey to gain more experience by naively trying to have casual sexual encounters with comically disastrous results. Sammy is a meager but very cute young woman lacking confidence and trying to figure out her own sexual identity amidst the confusion of her friends and family who are also struggling with their own sexual frustrations.

The supporting cast is surprisingly deep. Comedy veterans Kevin McDonald (The Kids in the Hall) and Shiela McCarthy (Little Mosque on the Prairie), cast again against type in decidedly very serious roles, play Sammy's neurotic and troubled parents. Their dynamic in particular is very well developed and feels like a genuine family relationship. The family subplot is very clearly established and grounded without ever taking over the momentum of the film and offers little to no conclusion, but in a way to reflect the real life struggles of marriage and children.

Fellow Ladner native, Will Sasso (MADtv) has a small but nice part as Sammy's overly aggressive boss, shedding his usually more goofy roles. I really enjoyed Ali Liebert's performance as Sylvia, Sammy's sexually confident yet somewhat sour and abrasive coworker. Mark Rendall as Eugene, Sammy's love-fearing crush, seemed a little awkward but in a strangely natural way. In contrast, Eugene Lipinski plays his beleaguered Ukranian immigrant father, who says depressing things like, "Never get married. It will ruin your life." All the intertwined character relationships come and go naturally in a way that sheds light on the complex nature and complications of years of (un)healthy sex.

As a fierce and fearless artist, I was surprised by the relative restraint and care with which Lee treats sex on camera. Having seen John Cameron Mitchell's controversial film Shortbus which Lee starred in and infamously performed non-simulated sex on screen, I expected more explicit sex. But instead, it is handled very carefully and while not tame at all, the sex is integrated mostly to be awkwardly realistic, advancing the story artfully forward. When we finally see Sammy bare herself completely, it is not in the powerful act of sex but a vulnerable moment of sadness and desperation and later in a defiant act of confidence and freedom. Lee takes all the troupes of sex comedies like threesomes, lesbianism, and awkward masturbation and bends them in original and honest ways that play very comically.

Lee shows her disciplined talents as both a writer and director with actor-friendly dialogue and genuine scenes of character development while having a restrained handle on the camera, letting the actors maneuver through interesting ideas and complicated situations that explore revealing themes and ideals. None of the characters really get any resolution or closure, yet the film ends somewhat if not entirely satisfyingly. By crafting very subtle but realistic character relationships and dynamics, Lee reveals common problems with human interactions while offering frank discussions about the trials and tribulations of both conservative and free sexuality.

The original music composed by Lee herself, Buck 65, and Adam Litovitz adds to the casual, fun feeling of the film without becoming overly quirky. Surprisingly, there is a lot going on as Lee builds a fluid world on camera capturing an East Vancouver neighbourhood sublimely and populating it with rich, interesting characters. For a 90 minute feature, Lee manages to efficiently tell a large story with interesting people building up identifiable relationships and problems that mirror real life situations. Love and sex are very different concepts as Sammy tries to satisfy her sexual urges by confusing the latter with the former and failing to resolve either desire.

Year of the Carnivore is a very thoughtful and clever piece of work that artfully explores the difficulties of exploring the limits of human sexuality responsibly. The film is an endearing story that realistically deals with the confusing reality of female sexuality while being both smart and funny. The quirkiness of the film never gets distracting as Milloti delivers a charming and intriguing performance. Fittingly, Year of the Carnivore is a story about finding sex and what exactly that entails.

More | Moviefone / Straight

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