The Canadian film scene is a mixed bag full of stories from different walks of life, though most of the recent ones are stories about bourgeois struggle. Then came Scarborough, an adaptation of the 2017 book by Filipino-Canadian author Catherine Hernandez. This captivating book, which received so much praise and prizes, is translated onscreen by documentary directors Sasha Nakhai, who is of Filipino and Iranian ancestry, and Rich Williamson.
The film follows three children from the low-income neighbourhood of Toronto, Scarborough. They all go to the local literacy program at their school run by their caring teacher Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani), who is visibly Muslim. There’s Bing (Liam Diaz), a Filipino boy who just escaped his abusive father; Sylvie (Essence Fox), an Indigenous girl whose family struggles to find permanent housing and whose brother has undiagnosed autism; and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), a white girl who suffers from abuse and neglect from both her parents.
The film exhibits the characters’ innocence and humanity despite the circumstances; after all, they are children full of hope and zealousness. With a strong source material, Nakhai and Williamson give the film a touch of authenticity which their documentary filmmaking background helped with. Williamson’s cinematography handles each shot with care. There is a sense of realism as well since Scarborough shows us circumstances that might actually be happening within the community.
Others might complain about the amount of trauma shown in the film; dubbing it “poverty porn,” similar to the criticism Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum got when it premiered in Cannes a few years ago. But showing such circumstances gets audiences out of the comfort of their privileged lives. These things happen to real people—Hernandez went through some of these experiences herself and knew people in her neighborhood who did as well.
Despite all this, Scarborough delivered one of the most raw performances of the year with its three child actors. Diaz brings an exuberant little boy to life, as well as one of the most heartwarming renditions of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in true Filipino karaoke fashion. Fox gives a strong, determined little girl trying to get by, somewhat the most mature between the three of them; and then there is Beitel, who had to handle the most devastating storyline out of all of them. She performs with such subtlety and tenderness.
As a Filipino immigrant myself in the Toronto area, this film is a love letter to those like me. The film shows us how these children live their life in a diverse neighborhood. It gives people a sense of welcoming, a sense of home, in its 136-minute runtime. Scarborough is a must-watch whether you’re from Toronto or Manila as it delves into social work, diversity, family, and childhood. It sure will make a name for itself in the Canadian film scene and hopefully gets attention beyond Canada.
After its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, ‘Scarborough’ nabbed first runner-up in the most-coveted People’s Choice Award, which predicts Oscar hopefuls, with ‘Belfast’ as the winner.