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The 13th Annual Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival for Children

School Days with a Pig
Directed by Tetsu Maeda

An earnest misfire, School Days with a Pig follows grade six teacher Mr. Hoshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) as he introduces a pig named P-Chan to his class and suggests that they all raise it together over the course of the school year - with the plan to eat the animal at graduation inevitably becoming muddled as the kids find themselves growing attached to P-Chan. Director Tetsu Maeda has infused School Days with a Pig with an atmosphere of unexpected authenticity that's reflected both in the naturalistic performances and in the plotlessness of Hirotoshi Kobayashi's screenplay, with the Maeda's documentary-like modus operandi initially compensating for the less-than-captivating nature of the wafer-thin storyline. The pervasively aimless vibe becomes more and more difficult to overlook, however, and the film ultimately comes off as an above-average short that's been ungainly expanded to feature length - with the relative lack of character development among Mr. Hoshi's students certainly exacerbating the movie's decidedly overlong feel. That being said, School Days with a Pig does boast several surprisingly compelling debate sequences in which the kids attempt to determine the fate of their porcine mascot - which, when coupled with a final stretch that's actually pretty moving, cements the film's place as a sporadically watchable yet overwhelmingly uneven piece of work. (And this is to say nothing of the decision to subject poor P-Chan to one lamentably cruel scenario after another, as the pig is, for example, trapped in a rain storm and forced to participate in a fireworks display.)

out of

Starring Maja
Directed by Teresa Fabik

Starring Maja follows overweight teenager Maja (Zandra Andersson) as she successfully convinces a documentary filmmaker (Moa Silén's Erika) to make a movie about her day-to-day life, with Maja's initial excitement for the project eventually souring as it becomes clear that she and Erika have very different ideas about what the final product should look like. Filmmaker Teresa Fabik has infused Starring Maja with a deliberately-paced sensibility that generally prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting to the episodic storyline, and it certainly goes without saying that Fabik's reliance on elements of a decidedly contrived nature ultimately exacerbates the film's less-than-enthralling atmosphere. Having said that, Andersson's consistently affable work as the central character goes a long way towards sustaining the viewer's (admittedly mild) interest - as the actress effortlessly transforms Maja into a thoroughly compelling and downright likable figure that one can't help but root for. It's consequently impossible not to feel a small degree of satisfaction once the almost absurdly uplifting finale rolls around, with the final result a passable teen drama that'll undoubtedly fare best among those viewers able to relate to the protagonist's plight.

out of

My Suicide
Directed by David Lee Miller

Sporadically intriguing yet mostly unwatchable, My Suicide follows obnoxious teen Archie Williams (Gabriel Sunday) as he boldly announces that he's going to film his own death for a school project - with his proclamation sending shockwaves throughout the student body, and also bringing Archie to the attention of a long-standing crush (Brooke Nevin's Sierra Silver). It's a reasonably compelling premise that's employed to consistently (and aggressively) underwhelming effect by David Lee Miller, as the filmmaker has infused the proceedings with a relentlessly over-the-top sense of style that inevitably cancels out its few positive attributes. The emphasis on MTV-inspired instances of visual and aural trickery - ie rapid-fire editing, superimposed images, jarring cuts to animation, etc - results in a decidedly amateurish vibe that ensures that all but the hardiest of viewers will have a tough time making it through this thing in just one sitting, with the rage-inducing atmosphere effectively undermining the strong performances and all-too-brief flashes of authenticity - which is a shame, really, given that Miller does have a few relevant things to say about adolescence and the media. It's also worth noting that My Suicide probably wouldn't have fared much better had it been stripped of its hyperkinetic visuals, as Miller, along with co-writers Eric J. Adams and Gabriel Sunday, offers up a super-conventional storyline that's rife with elements of a hopelessly eye-rolling nature (ie Archie and Sierra's blossoming relationship). The inclusion of an entirely unsatisfying conclusion only cements My Suicide's place as a consistently misbegotten endeavor, and it's ultimately unlikely that even those viewers able to relate to the central character's destructive mindset will find much of anything worth embracing here.

out of

Glowing Stars
Directed by Lisa Siwe

Glowing Stars follows well-adjusted teenager Jenna (Josefine Mattsson) as she adopts a progressively rebellious attitude after her mother's battle with cancer takes a turn for the worse, with her newfound friendship with her school's most popular student (Mika Berndtsdotter Ahlen's Ullis) essentially acting as the catalyst for her transformation. This Swedish riff on Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen benefits substantially from the palpably authentic feel that's been hard-wired into it by director Lisa Siwe, as the filmmaker's jittery, documentary-esque sensibilities are perpetuated by the plotless nature of the storyline and the surprisingly naturalistic performances from the various actors (Mattsson is especially impressive here). There is, however, little doubt that Glowing Stars' overall success is consistently hindered by the almost aggressively uneventful vibe, with Siwe and Linn Gottfridsson's unabashedly episodic screenplay ultimately exacerbated by the rather predictable nature of Jenna's character arc (ie she inevitably spirals into alcohol abuse and promiscuity). The unexpectedly poignant final half hour definitively resuscitates the viewer's dwindling interest, and there's little doubt that the film finally establishes itself as an uneven yet sporadically all-too-credible look at contemporary teenage life.

out of

© David Nusair