"Anne at 13,000 ft" soars, wins TFCA's $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award
Starring Deragh Campbell, Matt Johnson, Dorothea Paas and Lawrene Denkers. Written and directed by Kazik Radwanski. Now playing at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. 75 minutes. PG
Deragh Campbell’s unforgettable title character finds blissful deliverance whenever she jumps from an aircraft in “Anne at 13,000 ft,” an image that serves the film literally and figuratively.
Campbell’s high-strung Anne is the kind of person who tends to leap before she looks, both as a rookie skydiving enthusiast and in her fraught dealings with other people.
Yet there’s an even more potent recurring symbol in writer/director Kazik Radwanski’s audacious drama — one of the best films of the past year, a marvel of indie ingenuity that doubles as a mystery story.
It’s the motif of a person caught midway between sleep and alertness, clearly preferring the former to the latter. That person is tousle-haired Anne, a single Toronto daycare worker in her 20s who, beset by free-floating anxieties, has trouble keeping her feet on the ground.
This third feature by Toronto filmmaker Radwanski, his first with a female protagonist, is rife with allusions to the slumbering netherworld. These range from the “mermaid nap” Anne is caught taking when she’s supposed to be watching a roomful of kids, to her brief fainting spell during her first sky dive. She awakens with delight to the sight of the ground rushing up toward her.
One diverting scene finds Anne listening to a YouTube reading of Virginia Woolf’s supernatural short story “A Haunted House,” in which a woman lies in her bed, listening to a ghostly couple searching her home for a hidden treasure they call “the light in the heart.”
Is this a real haunting or is it all a dream? We might ask the same of Anne, who greets the world like a newborn fawn, blinking at uncertainty while rushing into the unknown. Campbell presents her as a character both fragile and resilient, hard to love but impossible to hate.
Anne has issues with her overprotective mother (Lawrene Denkers), to whom she snaps, while showing off her new apartment, “Don’t be weird!”
Mom may have good reason for concern.
Anne is great with kids, but seems to go out of her way to make things difficult for herself during adult interactions. Her go-to excuse is a variation of “I was only joking around!”
When a more experienced worker at her daycare scolds Anne for bringing a hot paper cup of tea into the room — it’s a hazard to the kids — Anne responds by draining the cup and then hurling it at the astonished and infuriated woman.
Anne’s dealings with men are a study in awkwardness. A Tinder date at a local bar turns comical as she makes nonsensical comments to a befuddled insurance salesman.
When she finally finds a guy who seems promising, a confident dude named Matt (Toronto filmmaker Matt Johnson) who she meets at Sarah’s wedding, she drinks herself into a vomit-spewing stupor.
Matt is intrigued by and attracted to her nonetheless, but he’s not blessed with infinite patience. He’s more than a little annoyed when one of Anne’s “jokes” involves taking him to her parents’ place for an unannounced lunch meeting and then declaring the two are getting married.
Most of what we learn about Anne is implied rather than stated or shown, since Radwanski and editor Ajla Odobasic have carefully and deliberately removed almost all back story.
The director, with cinematographer Nikolay Michaylov, also strips away many visual clues, shooting mostly in shaky close-ups and with shallow focus that make it hard to situate Anne and the people she’s with.
Radwanski has employed these techniques before, in his previous features “Tower” and “How Heavy This Hammer,” and they can induce an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia in the viewer.
Radwanski’s in-your-face style works better in this film, drawing us into the world and mind of a woman who either can’t or won’t conform to society’s norms — possibly even at risk to her life.
“Anne at 13,000 ft,” one of three nominees for the $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award at the March 9 Toronto Film Critics Association’s virtual gala, is a triumph for Radwanski, his best film yet. (UPDATE: "Anne at 13,000 ft" won the prize, announced in a live Zoom presentation at the end of the show, which is archived at torontofilmcritics.com.)
But it’s even more so for Toronto’s Deragh Campbell, whose riveting performance as a woman on the verge of vertigo is a sight to behold and an invitation to anticipate her future work.
(The story originally ran in the Toronto Star.)