Though likely still best known around the globe thanks to her starring role in Short Bus, here in Canada writer-director Sook-Yin Lee is something of a renaissance woman. Stepping in to the public eye as a music video VJ she quickly branched out into radio, print, visual art and virtually every other medium you could care to name, proving to be a unique and vital voice in all of them. While she'd worked in film before it wasn't until last year that Lee attracted widespread attention as a writer and director of film, directing what - to my mind, at least - is far and away the best segment of the Toronto Stories anthology and she returns to the screen now with her debut feature, Year of The Carnivore. And though Carnivore may overplay its quirky-indie-character card in the early going and suffer a touch tonally as a result when it proves not to be the comedy that it starts as, Carnivore proves what Toronto Stories had indicated: Lee is every bit as unique a voice in this medium as she has proven to be in so many others.
Sammy Smalls has a problem. Or, really, if we're being honest, she has several. First, she's named Sammy Smalls and while she never complains about it, that can't be an easy thing for a girl. Second, she walks with a limp and is plagued with body-image issues that linger from a childhood bout with cancer. And third, she is wildly inexperienced with sex - a point that seems to be preventing her friendship with the boy she not-so-secretly longs for from progressing into anything other than a friendship. Even the one thing that she should truly enjoy - her job as a store detective at a small supermarket at which she is essentially paid to dress up and creep around as a variety of strange characters - is marred by her boss' unfortunate tendency to take anyone she catches into the back room and administer a beating. Even if the culprit is nothing more than a shriveled old man trying to hide a steak under his hat.
After a disastrous birthday Sammy - either emboldened or made stupid by far too much alcohol, depending on your point of view - finally finds the courage to make her play for Eugene, the sensitive indie kid who busks with a ukelele outside her store and while you'd think that an evening that begins with vomit couldn't get any worse, this one does with Eugene making it very clear that he's not interested in love, not interested in a girlfriend, not interested in ever again attempting sex with Sammy. And so she does the only thing she can do: she decides to acquire as much sexual experience as she can, get better at it, and then prove to Eugene the error of his ways.
With a launching point like this it would seem expected that Year of the Carnivore would play out somewhere along the lines of a Miranda July film - filled with quirky characters and playful absurd humor - and at the outset this is exactly what it does. Like July, Lee has a deep love for the odd and the fringe, the sensitive souls who live on the outskirts of regular society. And, like July, Lee also refuses to play her characters as simple types or cartoons meant for laughs. No, they mean too much to her to treat that way - she strives to give them depth and deeper meaning a task that she succeeds admirably at. Slightly less successful, though are her shifts in tone, the shifting from quirk to serious issue. At times it feels as though there are two complementary but slightly different films contained within Year of the Carnivore, each of them struggling for dominance.
But enough about Lee. The heart and soul of Carnivore is Sammy herself, a role beautifully brought to life by Cristin Milioti, taking the lead in just her second film role following small recurring parts in The Sopranos and The Unusuals. In a lesser actors hands, Sammy would become precisely the sort of caricature that Lee so clearly wants to avoid but with Milioti she springs to absolute, full blooded life. Milioti is absolutely superb in this film, a role that should prove to be a star-making one for her.
Though it shows some of the growing pains of a director moving from shorts to features for the first time, Year of the Carnivore is, nonetheless, possessed of a remarkably clear voice and distinct vision, one that will surely just become sharper as Lee continues through her career. May it be a long one.
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