In The Heirloom, a couple facing lockdown decide to adopt a pet. It’s wintertime in Toronto, and Eric and Allie are chipping away at their COVID-restricted lives. Eric, a screenwriter, has hit a block. Together they goof around until Allie eventually asks the eternal question: why don’t we get a dog? Heirloom is the first feature of Ben Petrie, who is credited as director, editor, writer, and producer. He also stars in the film alongside his longtime creative partner Grace Glowicki, who also co-produced it––making The Heirloom not quite a Petrie-dish. What’s more, they have to share the screen with Milly, an auburn whippet rescue dog from the Dominican Republic whose cautious eyes and darting movements often steal the show.

Much like Milly, Petrie’s film works itself into a charmingly anxious mood. With few distractions, and some reason to procrastinate, Eric and Allie begin obsessing. Petrie leans into the tension, even bringing shades of a Safdies film to the scene wherein Eric and Allie meet Milly for the first time: pulling into a car park late at night, they prep themselves to show no excitement so as not to freak her out, giving the otherwise mundane interaction the heightened energy of a ransom payment. Petrie also starts looping Eric’s austere dog-training voice––a weird baritone––over the film like a sinister chorus. After the couple decide to experiment with Milly’s diet, nerves become frayed over her every bowel movement. She grows weary of some CDs that hang from a tree on their street. Petrie’s story comes in four sections with chapter titles (including “Poop” and “Shit or get off the can”) that skew scatological––appropriate for a film so concerned with Milly’s inner turmoil.

Knowing, in that very Millennial way, they’re only a click or podcast away from learning how to enjoy these moments in a more beneficial and productive way, the characters slip into a doom spiral of never really enjoying them at all. This, in some way, leads to the eponymous “heirloom”––inspired by Allie’s family home movies, and sensing some disquiet in their romance, Eric decides to scrap the comedy he’s been writing to make a time capsule of their relationship with Milly instead. To this point a lively farce, Petrie’s film then shape-shifts: there is now a film within the film to contend with; and then, best of all, the making of it starts overtaking the film itself.

This is often very funny, even as Eric’s narrativizing threatens to further hinder the relationship. Petrie allows Eric’s new obsession to spill into sequences that feel genuinely Kaufmanesque (an overused word, granted, but a distinction well-earned here). In one example, shot from Eric’s POV, Allie excitedly turns around to inform him that Milly has peed; Eric then begins seeing the moment repeated as if in multiple takes, Allie’s performance straining to hit the desired note. Whether these repeats are real or imagined is never explicated, though it’s fevered enough to appear like a figment of Eric’s lockdown brain. In a later scene, a boom mic operator crosses the shot without disturbing the character’s flow, a jarring intrusion during a moment of real vulnerability––and a sharp directorial choice that both douses the tension and accentuates its source.

Based in Toronto, Petrie released his first short, Sanctuary, in 2012. His sixth, 2016’s Her First Adam, was selected for SXSW and Sundance; Vimeo named it “Best Comedy” of the year. Glowicki also starred in it (winning a prize in Sundance for her performance), just as Petrie has acted in her films: both the 2019 short Tito and Glowicki’s upcoming feature Dead Lover. The composer, Casey Manierka-Quaile, is also a frequent collaborator; as is Kelley Jeffrey, who, in the years since shooting Her First Adam, has worked on music videos for such luminaries as Troye Sivan, Maggie Rogers, and The Weeknd. (Completing the cozy sense of locally sourced collaboration, and fresh from Obama’s best-of-2023 list, Matt Johnson gets a cameo as “Belligerent Vet.”) Jeffrey and Manierka-Quaile are essential in complimenting The Heirloom‘s steady stream of wit and tension with a style that elevates the film’s playful psychodrama––not least a late shot of Eric walking Milly in front of a distant, snowy Toronto skyline, one of the loveliest images I’ve seen so far this year.

The Heirloom debuted at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Grade: B

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