Taking place in the shadows of the Greater Toronto area and a liminal space of poverty, Scarborough isn’t an easy film to shake. A local, low-budget indie premiering in TIFF’s Discovery section, written by Catherine Hernandez (based on her novel) and directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, the film traces three turbulent childhoods of three families grappling with a system that has set them up to fail and fall through the cracks. Opening with late-night escapes from abusive situations and into housing insecurity, it bursts with a raw immediacy. Shot and edited by co-director Rich Williamson, he brings a Frederick Wiseman-esque sensibility to certain moments within formal institutions—doctors’ offices and a daycare that become a sanctuary beyond their intention.

Scarborough primarily focuses on three young children: Bing (Liam Diaz), a gifted Filipino boy ushered away from his mentally ill father by his loving mother; Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), the daughter of a drug-addicted mother and ill-equipped father; and Sylvie (Essence Fox), an indigenous girl with an autistic brother. Sylvie’s mother Marie (Cherish Violet Blood) is caught between multiple systems, including housing insecurity and caring for her son, when she visits a walk-in clinic the doctor chooses to kick the can down the road, telling her the support services are long bus rides away and she might as well wait until he’s in school for a formal diagnosis.

Bing’s mother Edna (Ellie Posadas) finds work at a nail salon and tag-teams with Marie, creating a fun environment in the backroom as their imaginations run wild experimenting with make-up. Bing is determined by the formal education system to be gifted, leading to a mix of emotions that recall Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—friendships form and break when one moves on to a new classroom.

Laura, however, doesn’t stand a fighting chance, as the daughter of a crack addict (Kristen MacCulloch) and a father (Conor Casey) who is both too close-minded and ill-equipped to parent. Laura is left to her own devices, but thankfully saved from some of the more horrific elements; in one scene she’s taken in by a Jamaican shop owner who feeds the rail-thin girl a beef patty until Jessica finds her. 

At 136 minutes, Scarborough traces these four turbulent lives over the course of a school year, connected by an Ontario Reads center led by Ms. Hina (stand-up comedian Aliya Kanani), a gentle soul who goes above supplementing the basic needs of her students, much to the horror of her superiors. Just out of grad school, her job—she’s told—is to encourage literacy and parenting skills. It’s implied it might just be too late for the present group of parents, though perhaps small interventions can break the chains of poverty. Her interactions with her direct supervisor are part of a formal record as viewed in emails on screen, wherein she’s told (for her own self-care) to keep a healthy distance—not terrible advice for a young mother who grows attached to children that have so little.

Filmed over the course of a year (with a break in shooting due to the pandemic), Scarborough is one of the most impactful works of social realism in quite some time, thankfully ending on a somewhat uplifting note. As The Florida Project proved, children can be quite resilient and creative in terrible situations. Poor Laura, however, never stands a chance between her racist father who hasn’t got the memo Canada is not a homogenous nation and a mother trapped in an endless cycle of addiction. Williamson and Nakhai document the legacy of a system that has set these families up to fail with two parents trying their hardest. 

The picture retains power with a raw immediacy and unflinching realism that doesn’t aestheticize poverty into an adventure, as lesser filmmakers have done. While there are moments of hope and lightness, Scarborough may deserve to be seen in the same light as Fredrick Wiseman’s institutional documentaries on public housing, policing, and domestic violence. In every institution there are idealists trying to do the right thing and those removed from what is occurring on the ground—in that respect Scarborough is both a moving drama and a stirring, angry inditement advocating for the Lauras of the world who fall between the cracks.

Scarborough premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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