Directed by Ingrid Veninger
2011, Canada, 82 minutes
When it comes to Ingrid Veninger, I suspect that the time has come to invoke that pesky little word ‘auteur’, despite all the baggage that comes along with it. Its use usually strikes me as bizarrely speculative—as if a critic can always reliably judge the degree of a filmmaker’s influence in what is essentially a collaborative creative process—but when it comes to this film and this filmmaker, the word is apt. Given that Veninger wrote, produced, directed, and starred in i am a good person / i am a bad person, it is safe to call her the film’s author. And thank goodness. Along with Xavier Dolan, Veninger is one of precious few Canadian directors guaranteed to give us something fascinating.
i am a good person / i am a bad person is an honest and understated mother-daughter travelogue, but to say that is to put to so mildly as to miss the point. Veninger plays Ruby White, an insecure filmmaker set to tour the European film circuit with Sara (Hallie Switzer), her eighteen-year-old daughter and assistant. Sara’s role as assistant is not, however, a mere plot device intended to bring her to Europe. Rather, it curiously flips the dynamic of her relationship with her mother, in terms of who is responsible for whom. Of course, things go wrong and they spend much of the film apart, coming to terms with things. The intriguing and impressive thing, however, is that Ruby and Sara continue to play off each other, even while apart.
In a lot of ways, this film is something of a home movie, but not just due to the conspicuously hand-held camera work. The cast’s performance is an intimate one. Veninger’s film includes all those little elements of life that—when played honestly—can make an audience at bit squeamish, as though we’ve stopped watching a film and started watching someone’s life.
An example: one of the first things we see Ruby do is give her husband a blowjob. Most films temper that sort of thing by make it stylized, or funny, or exploitive. Instead, Veninger gives us a quick favour from a wife to a husband, both briefly fending off the morning routine so typical of family life.
A truthful sexual encounter is just one of many boundaries Veninger breaks. Even the synopsis on TIFF’s website does not use the word ‘blowjob’, but ‘servicing’, in quotation marks, instead. i am a good person / i am a bad person is the sort of film that reminds us of watching a play—it can be that intimate and that uncomfortable. A side effect of this is awkwardness on the part of the cast, leaving us to wonder whether it is awkwardness on behalf of the characters or the actors themselves. Design, or default? Of course, that only sounds like negative criticism to the person who likes the boundary of the screen between story and audience to remain unshaken.
Sometimes, the boundary ought to be shaken, and Veninger is the filmmaker to do it. It should be plain by now that i am a good person / i am a bad person is not a film well-suited to strip-mall multiplexes, but to movie theatre much more bold. The work of an auteur, indeed.
– Dave Robson
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to the 18th. Tickets, schedules, and other information can be found on the festival’s website.