VIFF 2018: Spice It Up (Lev Lewis, Yonah Lewis, & Calvin Thomas, 2018)


One of the highlights of this year’s Future//Present program, and almost certainly the funniest movie to ever play in the now three-year-old series highlighting the cutting edge in Canadian independent cinema, is Spice It Up, from the directorial troika of Lev and Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas. Beginning life five years ago as a shambolic portrait of seven young women who, failing at high school, join the Canadian Army and spend one crazy summer together hanging out, dancing and somehow becoming involved in a terrorist plot involving French Canadian separatists. Charming and goofy, the original film seems like exactly the kind of thing people who teach in film schools rail against: it’s formless and fails to follow the rules of screenwriting as set done by hacks in how-to books. The current version of the film embraces that criticism, inventing a frame story in which the film student who ostensibly directed the movie (played by Jennifer Hardy), is tasked by her teacher (a very funny Adam Nayman) with restoring some classical virtues to her slice-of-life hangout movie. And he isn’t the only one with criticisms: seemingly everyone Hardy meets tells her what is wrong with her film and makes suggestions that simply don’t make sense to her. Still, she works at it, but, as she says, every change she makes away from her original vision simply makes her like the movie less.

Of course all the people who criticize Hardy’s work are men: her instructor, her editor, a guy who suggests she turn her characters into manifestations of virtues set down by moral philosophers, a guy who lives next door who walks out of her movie halfway through a screening. The only woman she actually talks to about it is her sister, played by Sophy Romvari, who hasn’t even bothered to watch the movie yet. It’s a pointed criticism of the film school system, and the wider world of film criticism, dominated by the point of view of men, both under- and over-educated, with directors like Hardy flustered when their personal style of cinema doesn’t line up with established norms. It’s hardly a polemic, though, and the film is just as hilarious in its parody of film culture as the film within a film is of a group of underprepared women sticking together (where Hardy in her story is pointedly alone) despite a significant dearth of common sense. It’s maybe the funniest movie about independent filmmaking since La última película, or maybe even Tom DiCillo’s classic Living in Oblivion. It’s also, with its memorable supporting cast, a compelling portrait of the Toronto film scene as it stands right now in the 2010s, resolutely opposed to commercial norms and dedicated to making the personal cinematic and the cinematic personal.