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SFF 2023: Change, Trauma and Cinema — ‘I Like Movies’ delivers a seminal teen text  

This review is part of Tharunka’s continued coverage of the 70th Sydney Film Festival. Read the rest of the reviews here.

When Lawrence Kweller (Isaiah Letterman) proclaims “Movies are my life. I need to watch them like I need to breathe, and if I don’t watch a movie a day, I feel like part of me is dying,” the film’s title stands almost ironically in comparison to his undying, and no doubt toxic, love for cinema. 

Chandler Levack’s debut feature I Like Movies is the latest in a long line of quirky coming-of-age films about angsty yet earnest teenagers struggling for social relevance and direction; echoing sentiments of Lady Bird (2017), Rushmore (1998) and, perhaps most closely given its similarly meta-textual nature, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015). However, as the title makes clear, Lawrence’s obsession is hardly misunderstood. In fact, his passion is a well-known fact, often championed by those around him. 

His friend Matt (Percy Hynes White) persistently endures both Lawrence’s private, and often very public, narcissistic outbursts, whilst giving up any chance at the social normativity of high-school. They spend Saturday nights watching SNL (which they refer to as ‘Reject’s Night’), shooting sketches and ingratiating Lawrence’s dreams of directorial stardom, despite his very vocal assertion that Matt will likely not be a part of his future. 

Likewise, the boys’ teacher, Mr. Olenick (Anand Rajaram) offers them the opportunity to film their year group’s graduation video, but spends most of the time chasing the boys up for any indication that they’ve even started work on the project. Levack designs our gateway into Lawrence’s world in such a way that we might see him as a misunderstood talent, destined to fulfil his dream of acceptance into NYU with nothing more than the proclamation that he likes movies, a lot.  

Then there is Alana (Romina D’ugo), the video store manager who hires Lawrence, and whose piercing, cynical disdain for cinema rapidly dismantles Lawrence’s façade. It is this relationship that very quickly takes predominance over Lawrence’s other social dilemma, as he must compromise between his singular vision of what makes a ‘good’ film, and what the average Canadian in 2003 wants to watch on a Friday evening. Alana begins to form an unlikely yet charmed fondness for Lawrence, who, in his own self-obsession, returns an awkward and somewhat unhealthy obsession with her. 

Lawrence spends many of their working hours probing her interest in film, no doubt garnered from many years working at the video store – however, he is often met by abrasive, even annoyed responses. Whilst Alana often serves as the conduit through which Levack cuts down the male cinephilic ego, she is no less empathetic than many of the others in Lawrence’s life, and is, more often than not, open to embracing Lawrence’s thoughts and visions, without necessarily coddling the fragilities of his personality.  

Levack, in recreating the world of her own youth, does not apply layers of colorful, nostalgic whimsy we have become so accustomed to in coming-of-age cinema. Burlington, Ontario is a cold, transient place, where the sun only serves to lighten its greys. No one is happy to be there, or even be from there, with Lawrence and Matt both seeking their tertiary education elsewhere – but Alana escaped once, only to be forced back following a traumatic stint in Hollywood. 

Sequels, the video store Lawrence works in, becomes centrally symbolic of the film’s uncomfortable relationship with nostalgia. We, the spectator, know that it and its kind will soon fade into nothing more than another relic of a time when our relationship with art and culture was all the more tangible; where real human connection was the barrier to our evening’s entertainment, and the only algorithm was a nerdy teenager who thought he knew everything about cinema. 

Lawrence is the type of person, (or rather the part of ourselves if you weren’t an annoying Kubrick-worshipper and just a more general asshole) that we cringe at in retrospect, were embarrassed to be. Yet, with an empathetic eye, one can’t help but reflect and be hopeful that growth and change are equal measures of promise and pain.   

Editors: Alex Neale and Nicole Cadelina