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MOVIE REVIEW: Playing with fire in an unnamed smelter town

Saturday night I had the opportunity to attend the Trail premiere of Play With Fire, an independent feature film written by Soren Johnstone and co-produced by Juicy Studios alumnus Michael Babiarz. The film played to two packed houses at the recently-renovated Royal Theatre in downtown Trail. Set in a small, unnamed industrial town, the film is, despite its never being named as such, vintage Trail.

Some clever editing techniques and angles help mask the city’s true identity, my favourite being a scene with the Home of Champions statue and its plaque being carefully skirted. The film’s content, however, is really a hallmark of the smelter-entwined hamlet we all know and love.

To the production team’s credit, there is no metaphor, simile or allegory at play here. If it quacks like a duck in this film, it is a duck. The film, or more precisely, the characters within it, walk, talk, cavort and carouse like real Trail-ites, so I found myself somewhat perplexed that the filmmakers felt compelled to leave the city unidentified. Call a duck a duck, a spade a spade, or whatever, but the filmmakers' reluctance to root the story to the place that obviously spawned it feels like a bit of a cop-out.

But enough said on that. Maybe.

Play With Fire follows the unravelling love life and questionable commitments a twenty-something drug-dealer named Christian clings to in an unnamed town, a place that holds little in the way of a promising future for any of the characters we meet.
There’s Joel, the aspiring drug kingpin, recently returned home from the big city after having previously run afoul of an unnamed town’s old-guard drug pushers. There's Melody, Christian’s doting and doe-eyed girlfriend. She wants him to abandon his new career-path and run away with her back to the big city.

Matt is Joel’s kid-brother. He doesn’t know what he wants out of life, but has at least established he doesn’t want to spend it in an unnamed town that has nothing to offer him but more of the same. Oh, and then there are the requisite supporting players: all equally loathsome individuals whose existence is predicated on the nightly procurement and ingestion/sampling of copious amounts of narcotics and similarly-available small town vices.

I’m no prohibitionist, but the cavalcade of substances wore thin after a while; I get it: these young men and women are into their chemically altered states. While the various options and methods of imbibing on display reveal a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of drug-types and delivery, I felt it all a bit unnecessary.

Whether intended as a cautionary tale, an indictment of misspent youth, or as a condemnation of an unnamed town itself, I also had a tough time relating to any of the characters, let alone sympathizing with their respective ‘plights'. Maybe that was the point. I suspect, however, that efforts at co-opting innocent Matt into a life of crime by protagonist Christian were intended more to illustrate just how misguided he (Christian) had really become; in wanting to take young Matt under his wing and ‘learn him the ropes’ about dealing in town, Christian’s own journey past the point of no return becomes that much more obvious.

Does it become more tragic? Tragic at all? With a shrug, I say, “meh.” While efforts are made on the part of the filmmakers to humanize Christian (he drives his grandma to church on Sundays, ‘adopts’ his murdered friend’s younger brother, and kind-of-seems-to actually like the girl he professes to love), it all feels a bit like patting the dog- cinematic devices to make a character more sympathetic. Sadly, it didn’t work for me.

As an audience member, I would have preferred more time had been spent on Christian’s back story (absentee/estranged mother, dead father) to better explain his motivations, or, in tandem, more attention paid to the root causes of the behaviours chronicled in the film. Where did this culture of violence, self-indulgence and apathy particular to an unnamed city come from, and why has it carried on so long? Why does Christian, more than any other character, embody it? Victim of circumstance or history repeating itself?

Despicable protagonists are tough to make work, but kudos to screenwriter Soren Johnstone all the same- as a first feature length effort, it was a big project to take on, what with the juggling of an amateur cast, little to no budget, and a very real not-so-underground drug culture in Trail that might not be so receptive to a film like this being made in the first place. Congratulations to both Babiarz and Johnstone on getting it done and living to tell the tale.

In conclusion- is the film worth seeing? Yes. Why? Well, it depends largely on who you are. If you are an aspiring filmmaker, this is a terrific example of what can be achieved when wholehearted commitment to a project, familiarity with one’s subject matter, and directorial tunnel-vision intersect. On that level, it could even be considered inspiring insofar as the film itself was completed on an independent footing.

Who else would stand to gain from a viewing? If you are already somewhat prejudiced or biased towards an unnamed town and are seeking to have your misgivings confirmed, Play With Fire will certainly deliver the fix you crave. Similarly, if you are a parent or family member of someone teetering on the edge of leading a life such as those portrayed in the film, you may find this a useful intervention tool--there is a certain ‘after-school special’ quality to the film, albeit a decidedly more stark/gritty/foul-mouthed version than programs typically accessed on Nickelodeon (‘Hey man, the first one’s free!’ and ’Gee whiz!’ this film is not).

Another group that I believe would benefit from seeing the film are disengaged and/or disenfranchised youth who may feel trapped by their surroundings, be they economic, familial or geographic in nature. Whether it is the storyline itself that may inspire their escape, or the back-story of the production team who themselves escaped similar surroundings, there are definitely some lessons to be drawn from Play With Fire.

Whether that message is clear or heeded--well, that’s anybody’s guess.