Canada’s 'coolest' film fest beckons

Whistler lineup boasts Oscar hopefuls and indie gems, including 'Prodigals' with star Sara Canning

Whistler Film Festival bills itself as Canada’s coolest film fest – and while it could be considered thoroughly uncool to introduce oneself as cool, Whistler Film Fest isn’t wrong to do so. 

Judging by the line-up for the 17th annual event – which runs Nov. 29 to Dec. 3 at venues around Whistler – being cool in 2017 means programming 46 feature films and 41 shorts from 15 countries and an array of genres.

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Being cool means including Hollywood fare (like James Franco’s buzzworthy The Disaster Artist, about the shit-show behind the worst movie ever made), indie gems (like the Canada-France co-production Mobile Homes, a Cannes Film Festival alumnus that stars Imogen Poots as a worn-out mother working in a trailer park), and more women-helmed films than ever before: 30 per cent of this year’s feature films are directed by women.

Cool also means bold-faced names like Bill Pullman (everyone’s favourite alien-battling POTUS who will grace Whistler’s screens in The Ballad of Lefty Brown, a Western about a merciless cowboy on a revenge journey) and Kyra Sedgwick (whose directorial debut, Story of a Girl, is one of our top picks) participating in intimate “Inside The Actor’s Studio”-type conversations in front of live theatre audiences.

It’s a festival where you can be equally nourished as a film fan and an industry insider: where distribution deals are made in hotel lobbies; where Oscar hopefuls generate interest (last year’s fest opened with La La Land and this year’s will kick off with Darkest Hour, which stars Gary Oldman as a newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill, exploring a peace treaty with Nazi Germany); where cinephiles gather for a celebratory retreat in the snow.

That confluence of coolness is the reason that local director Michelle Ouellet was eager to premiere her third feature film, Prodigals, at Whistler Film Festival. Says Ouellet in a recent phone interview: “I tracked Paul [Gratton, WFF’s programmer] down almost a year ago, because the film was finished and I said, ‘You’re the first person that I’m showing this to, do you want this?’”

She'd made her Whistler Film Festival feature directorial debut in 2013 with Afterparty, and calls the festival her “favourite.”

“I go up every year, regardless of whether or not I have a film. I love the stuff that they program.”

Based on the play of the same name by Sean Minogue, Prodigals stars David Alpay (Ararat, The Tudors) as Wesley, a dreamer who left his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie for Toronto five years previous but returns to The Soo to support his old friends when one of them is charged with murder. Besides reconnecting with his best mates over euchre and booze, Wesley is eager to reunite in a profound way with Jen, the ex-girlfriend he abandoned but still loves. Jen is portrayed by Vancouver-based actress Sara Canning (A Series of Unfortunate Events).

Prodigals is set entirely in The Soo, but it filmed on location in both Sault Ste. Marie and Vancouver (“The Soo itself was super cold, and Vancouver was super rainy, so there were some weather challenges, but we had a visual effects company do weather matching,” says Ouellet).

The drama features Vancouver talent in co-starring and supporting roles, including Brian Markinson (who recently portrayed Roy Cohn in the Arts Club’s two-part production of Angels in America), Jameson Parker, David Kaye, Nicholas Carella, and Andrew Francis, as well as cameos by busy local actors Hilary Jardine (Van Helsing), Omari Newton (Continuum), and The 100 star Richard Harmon. (Harmon, whose character sports thick eyeliner, is credited as Eye Makeup Witness.)

Ouellet – who directed the Vancouver-shot web series The True Heroines and Paranormal Solutions Inc. – says Prodigals represents a marriage of two of her favourite sub-genres: legal thrillers and reunion films. “What I find really appealing about reunion films is somebody coming in as an outsider and reintegrating themselves in their friends and family,” says Ouellet. “And I thought, ‘Why not put those genres I love together?’”

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Prodigals stars David Alpay as Wesley and Vancouver-based actress Sara Canning as his ex-girlfriend, Jen. - Contributed

It’s Canning’s character with whom Alpay’s Wesley has the most electric reunion. (The onscreen pairing is a bit of an Easter egg for fans of The Vampire Diaries, on which Canning played Aunt Jenna and Alpay played Atticus Shane: “He was on the show after me, and we were ships in the night on that show,” says Canning over tea in Yaletown.)

“I’m always really fascinated by place, and what the push and pull of home is,” notes Canning. The actress – whose recent credits include War for the Planet of the Apes, Remedy, On the Farm, Hello Destroyer and Eadweard – grew up in a small village in Newfoundland, and describes herself as “quite restless. I love my life abroad and I feel at home in many cities, but I go home to Newfoundland every year, and there always is that sense of belonging.”

Canning feels that sense of belonging at the Whistler Film Festival, too. In 2014, she was part of the festival’s Talent to Watch program for a rom-com thriller called I Put a Hit on You. “It feels like a very intimate film festival, but at the same time, it also feels like a lot of the Vancouver film community is at an early Christmas party.”

• Canning, Ouellet, and cohorts will be reunited when Prodigals screens Nov. 30 and Dec. 2 at Whistler Film Festival. Peruse the festival schedule at whistlerfilmfestival.com – and check out our top picks here.

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