It’s hard to put into words the emotions that Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson’s Scarborough elicits. This intimate look into the lives of three young Toronto kids (and their low-income, marginalized families) runs the gamut from joy in the smallest of victories to rage at the failures of people and systems that turn a blind eye or discriminate. Only a few minutes into its runtime and it’s easy to see how this small but powerful Canadian film beat out some of Hollywood’s best to secure the first runner-up spot for the TIFF People’s Choice Award this past September.
Written for the screen by Catherine Hernandez, from her 2016 debut novel, the Canadian film serves up a slice of life from Toronto’s East End–the Galloway Road area, to be precise. It follows three primary-aged kids over one school year: Bing (Liam Diaz), a kind-hearted but bullied Filipino boy looking to succeed away from his father’s abuse and mental illness; Sylvie (Mekiya Fox), an outgoing Indigenous girl whose family is struggling to make ends meet; and, Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), a neglected, shy girl just looking for someone to care about her.
Each of their stories has the potential to stand alone but here they are connected through their community and the before-school local literacy program they all attend. No matter what obstacles are placed in their paths the rest of the time, in this classroom they are free to express themselves and join together to lift each other up. At the centre of this safe space is Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani), the understanding and supportive leader of the municipal program who has to deal with racism and bureaucracy as she tries to make a difference. One of the best moments in the film comes when Hina takes her supervisor to task for their lack of humanity.
The documentary-style film shows you these families at their most honest, and sometimes lowest, moments, but never without a lens of sensitivity and compassion. But the key to the film’s success lies with its three young stars, all first time actors who show promise well beyond their years. Their raw and guileless performances anchor Scarborough from beginning to end, each of them bringing an undefinable something that resonates and keeps audiences invested from moment one.
Beitel communicates so much with just a look, breaking your heart with her fragility over and over. Fox captures Sylvie’s openness to the world around her with ease. It’s not hard to understand how this one little girl has befriended so many different members of her neighbourhood, regardless of their background or age. Then there’s Diaz, who channels Bing’s intelligence and insecurity so well that his Canadian Screen Awards Best Actor nomination seemed almost a foregone conclusion. The film closes on a moment of personal triumph for Bing that requires the young actor to sing and dance and not only does he nail it, but he lands the layered emotions of the moment too. An impressive act to pull off for any veteran of the screen, never mind one new to the profession.
It would be easy for the film to focus just on the children, leaving the adults in the narrative as one dimensional. But Scarborough makes sure to demonstrate that many of the parents are just as deserving of our attention and understanding, as they struggle against a system determined to marginalize the people that most need its support.
Sylvie’s mother Marie (Cherish Violet Blood) is patronized and ignored in turn as she tries to get her youngest son a diagnosis and treatment. Edna (Ellie Posadas) escapes an abusive relationship with Bing in tow and works long hours in a nail salon where she faces misogyny, racism and condescension from her clients on the regular in order to provide what little she can for her son. While the children, despite their circumstances, still have an innocence about the world around them, their mothers are fully cognizant of the obstacles they face. Both actresses bring to the fore the bone-weary exhaustion these women carry and the toll it takes for them just to get up and face each day, putting on a smile for the little ones in their lives.
Scarborough may seem like a sad film – and it certainly breaks your heart numerous times – but there are so many moments of resilience, kindness and love for each and from their communities that you’re left with a feeling of hope and positivity. You get the feeling that these kids and their families, no matter their myriad of challenges, will be alright.
Scarborough is currently playing in select Canadian cinemas.