I Like Movies a masterful debut from new Canadian director

Chandler Levack’s filmmaker-coming-of-age story better than Steven Spielberg’s

I Like Movies
Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 109 mins.
When: Now
Genre: Comedy-drama
Rating: NNNNN (out of five)
Why you should watch: An impressive debut from Canadian film critic turned writer-director Chandler Levack, who is assisted in her first film by a stellar cast, including leads Isaiah Lehtinen as the endearing, self-absorbed teenaged film freak and Krista Bridges as his undeclared mentor who runs the small-town video store where he works. A beautiful coming-of-age story that’s also about obsession, dreams and the interim reality that exists before beginning to achieve some of these goals as the lead character wrestles with feeling lost in a small town not big enough for his dreams.

MY TWO FAVOURITE MOVIES AT TIFF 2022 were directed by Canadian women, one of them, Women Talking, just won an Academy Award; the other, I Like Movies, has just opened in theatres with a much more modest reception. Both films deserve massive audiences.

I Like Movies is the remarkable first feature film from Toronto-based writer Chandler Levack. It’s a fresh telling of a coming-of-age story that’s both deeply personal and, at times, universal in its themes. Made for an astonishing budget of only $250,000, the film authentically explores the life of an aspiring movie maker much more satisfyingly than another film plowing similar turf that debuted at TIFF, Steven Spielberg’s gushy The Fabelmans.

In presenting the story of teenaged video-store clerk and obsessive cinephile, Lawrence Kweller (brilliantly played by Isaiah Lehtinen) as he stews in suburban purgatory, Levack perceptively captures the moment at the end of high school, just before next steps, when possibilities loom both magnificently and menacingly.

Kweller dreams big but is also secretly daunted by his aspirations. Obnoxiously opinionated about film — and certain of his ideas about them — Kweller distractedly finishes up high school in Burlington, ON, while dreaming of getting a scholarship to NYU film school.

Having grown up in Burlington — Levack even retreated back there to her dad’s house during the pandemic — and having put in her time as a Blockbuster video store clerk who dreamed of studying film, it’s easy to see the autobiographical elements in I Like Movies.

But why did she cast the lead as a male?

“I think because I switched the gender of the main character, it helped me feel a safer space because there’s some narrative distance there,” says Levack over a Zoom call from Toronto.

“You’re kind of told as a female filmmaker you can only tell women’s stories because I guess there’s been such a disparity of those stories being on screen. But I think it’s kind of interesting to have women tell stories about men — maybe at a different angle than they could see themselves. That was some of the stuff I wanted to explore.”

Kweller is the frustrated video-store clerk who is pained by his customers’ “bad” choices and desperate to turn them on to “real” cinema. He forms a gentle bond with the store’s manager, Alana (Romina D’Ugo), herself a former actor.

“I’ve never seen a movie about a 16-year-old boy and a woman in her 30s where the relationship wasn’t weirdly sexual or something. I wanted to unpack the cultural trope of the toxic film bro and find them at an early point in their adolescence when their ego is really being formed. I’ve known a lot of Lawrences in my life, worked with them, had them as mentors, dated them, went to film school with them.

“At their best, they’re completely lovely and wonderful, inspiring; then, at their worst, they’re really, really toxic. I think they don’t really realize the harm they can do in the culture or the privilege that they have.

“In my most formative years, my education and the film and music and stuff that I was supposed to like was all kind of dictated by men. Now, at 36, I’m trying to unpack my cultural formation as a person and an artist and how much of that was dictated by the tastes of men and male totem and male-dominated cinema and trying to be those guys and worship those guys.”

And while Kweller is often irritating, we never stop cheering for him; he’s not a bad guy, just profoundly un-self-aware. We’re left hoping he will finally make the right decisions, stop self-sabotaging and stop being a jerk.

“I’m just interested in human growth and change, which is always really small and incremental,” Levack says, apparently ready to forgive a world of mansplainers if they just get their shit together.

“Lawrence consumes movies the way others do heroin. It’s really his drug and the same way that food or alcohol or drugs or sex can be these masks that can be used to avoid dealing with ourselves and connecting with other people. I think movies can be a convenient way to feel empathy for people and feel your emotions, but it’s entirely safe because it’s at a distance. They’re not real people that you actually have to engage with.

“It’s much more risky to connect with other people in a way that’s not defined by your own specific taste.”

One of Levack’s heroes these days is Women Talking writer-director Sarah Polley, who had time to encourage the first-time filmmaker even as she was pursuing her own Academy Award dreams. Levack says Polley has tweeted her praise for the movie and the two have shared thoughts about filmmaking — and concussions. Polley suffered a horrible concussion years ago and Levack got one in October while doing press for her film.

“She’d send me DMs on Twitter saying ‘Chandler, get off your phone, I can see you’re on Twitter right now, go for a walk,’” she laughs.

“To have her advice and support, she is such an inspiration to me. She is really leading the way in terms of how a set can be run, how we can think about being female directors. You should be able to create whatever environment you want to tell the story.”

As Levack continues to roll out her movie at film festivals and general theatrical releases, she already has plans for her next feature — and she doesn’t fear running out of personal stories to mould into films.

“I have so many awkward, painful things that happened to me in my family I have at least five features of personal things to mine from,” she laughs.

Levack notes that the average time between first and second features for a woman is eight years, and she doesn’t intend to let that happen to her.

Her new film will be set in mid 2000s Montreal and draw on her early career as a music writer for Toronto alt weeklies including my former magazine, NOW. Since I was editor-publisher, I will look forward to her next film with some trepidation — but mostly excitement — hoping some previous dickish behaviour of my own doesn’t make it into the film (though the ongoing promise of incremental change suggests hope for all).

At the risk of dropping a spoiler, I Like Movies is an ideal companion to Women Talking and Levack’s film could have been subtitled Men Listening. With I Like Movies, Levack gives notice that another major Canadian filmmaker has arrived.