Anyone in Cape Breton seeing this movie will feel like they are watching two shows: the first is an adaptation of Josh MacDonald’s play Halo that hit the stages almost a decade ago, and the second show is the usual game of seeing how much of the Cape Breton story that inspired the play made it onto the screen version.
To the first and more important show–the one based on the play based on the actual event that happened at a Tim Horton’s in Florence.
That film is a winner: funny, fast-paced with sharply drawn characters, and with just the right amount of heart.
In real life, the image of a bearded man appeared on the exterior wall of a donut shop, some say due to a sooty light fixture. In the movie, the image is created by a cup of coffee thrown against the wall in anger (a deadly sin) by Casey MacMullin in frustration at the miserable turn her young life has taken. Her older sister lies in a coma, her father is neglecting his Christmas tree business to keep vigil at her bedside, leaving Casey to try to pay the growing pile of bills from her minimum wage job at Crowne’s donut shop.
A bit of a rebel prankster (like her sister), Casey slightly alters the image to make it more recognizable and shows it to her smarmy, overbearing boss, Uncle Bob. Bob, a good church-going capitalist, sees Jesus, as does everyone else at the coffee shop and in the drive-thru line. (And why is it always Jesus? Yes, he does look a bit like a sad Willie Nelson but do people always assume it’s Jesus?)
Soon, since this is a sincere religious response, everybody’s making money. Bob is selling out of donuts and coffee. Dad’s Christmas trees are flying off the lot. Gospel singers are selling CDs next to the cotton candy stand. And Casey (a self-proclaimed atheist) is selling her soul; collecting big tips as the girl who found Jesus on the back wall (hey, it’s just to pay the light bill), and then by tapping into the credulity of the believers (hey, they’ve stopped treating me like a freak), and finally by being propositioned by Uncle Bob (and who would have guessed the Devil would arrive bearing crullers?) to peddle a fake tale of religious awakening.
Casey is faced with hard choices and the filmmakers don’t let her off the hook.
Martha MacIsaac (Superbad, Emily of New Moon) as Casey has the kind of vulnerable toughness her character requires. Her eyes light up with every thought and emotion passing through her confused soul. Callum Keith Rennie, in a departure from his usually psychotic intense repertoire of characters, plays her dad with such a gentleness and generosity of spirit it is hard to believe this is the same actor who played the high voltage rocker Billy Talent in Hard Core Logo or the multiple personality cop in TV’s Shattered. As daughter and father, they have beautiful chemistry.
Don Allison, as Uncle Bob, is as greasy as his character’s donuts and twice as delicious. Andrew Bush as an impossibly young parish priest is a welcome humane and sane presence. Trying to be relevant and non-judgmental, he continually alienates everyone by being the only sensible person. Ricky Mabe, as the hockey player who finds an unexpected kinship with the outcast Casey, is an honest and believable actor stuck with the thankless job of representing the non-loony fringe of the faithful.
On a small budget and shooting schedule, director George Mihalka built on the strengths of MacDonald’s script with his talented cast–the dilemmas of the characters were never overplayed or pushed beyond their everydayness and that actually made the big ideas they debated matter more. Mihalka never played the beliefs of the faithful for cheap laughs either and let the immense emotional investment these folk had in their faith, not the people themselves, hint at the darkness that might descend if that holy light faded. (Gaetan Hout’s fleet editing deserves special mention as well, especially in the montages of the venerating crowds. And the terrific soundtrack featuring a who’s who of indie and alternative Maritime acts that never seemed gratuitous and actually moved the along the emotional narrative.)
(Final aside: this is the type of movie that people often say they’ll wait for the DVD. Don’t. Theatrical support of movies about our little corner of the world is what helps get made the next little movie about our little corner of the world. And, as a big screen movie, it has a certain beauty and elegance to it lost on even the best and biggest flat screen TV.)
And now for that other show that exists for only us Cape Bretoners. First, like most films about Cape Breton, it was shot off-island—in Shubenacadie and around Halifax. The only Cape Bretoner in the cast I recognized was Heather Rankin as one half of a traveling Christian music duo. However, a bucket of Lick-A-Chick fried chicken makes a funny cameo. And director George Mihalka directed the most famous film ever lensed on Cape Breton Island, the original “My Bloody Valentine”, shot in and around Sydney Mines and North Sydney, just up the road from, you guessed it, Florence.