Twist written and directed by Jacob Tierney, produced by Victoria Hirst, with Nick Stahl, Joshua Close, Michèle-Barbara Pelletier and Gary Farmer. A Victorious Films production, a Christal release. 97 minutes. Opens Friday (June 4). For review, venues and times, see Movies, page 155. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
If Jacob Tierney didn't exist, J. D. Salinger might have invented him.
He's a slight, blue-eyed, noble-featured former child actor with the poise of someone who's been performing since he could walk. He's promoting his first film, a bleak riff on Oliver Twist in which all the orphans are hustlers, the script for which he wrote when he was 19.
When he drops down on the couch in the suite at the Four Seasons, shrugs at his blue button-down look and says, "Ugh, I hate having to dress like an adult," the room suddenly goes all Franny And Zooey.
They always advise you to write about what you know, so a drama about the exploitation of youth was probably a good place for Tierney to start.
At the age of 10, he was working 16-hour stretches on Dracula: The Series in Luxembourg.
"I've been working for a living since I was six. I didn't consciously set out to make a film about that, but a while ago someone asked me about child exploitation, so I gave them the spiel that I'd come up with about how I could have set the movie in a Nike sweatshop in India or Vietnam. My dad looked over at me and said, "Or on a film set."
His dad, who acted as executive producer, and his grandfather are both film professors. "I grew up with very pretentious European cinema," he says, explaining Twist's bleak, grimy, Dickensian look.
"I wasn't trying to show hostel Toronto or junkie Toronto. But the urban decay was crucial. Dickens is a profoundly urban writer, and I've never not lived in a big city. I like cities - and I like them when they look bad."
Clearly. This Toronto is gorgeously dank, smoulderingly stylish, sooty, frigid and grey. The action unfolds under chilly lights while the camera watches from a cool distance.
"I wanted to stay true to an adolescent impulse at the centre of this movie. There's something in its earnestness, in its sense of sorrow, of how heavy things can be, that I like. So I wanted to give it a visual language that would offset that.
"I didn't want to wallow, ever. That's just no fun," he chuckles, getting the irony, "as opposed to the super-fun movie that I did make."
He's not an unmitigated fan of the Dickens classic.
"Reading Oliver Twist is a challenge. Fagan is referred to as 'the Jew' for the first 200 pages - it's deeply anti-Semitic. And it's profoundly classist, too. You can only cut it so much slack until you're like, 'Well, Engels was already published at this point. You're not that progressive.'
"That's why I chose the Artful Dodger as my main character instead of Oliver.
"There's that central fallacy to it that's kind of creepy: finally, the kid who should never have been among the poor and the Jews is going to leave the poor and the Jews.
"So I turned the Artful Dodger, who gets no back story, into the rich kid slumming instead."
The Artful Dodger, now just Dodge, played by Tierney's friend Nick Stahl, slums all the way down the 401 from Montreal to Toronto, where he's taken in by Fagan and his stable of hustlers. Soon, however, his family history catches up with him in a harrowing way. In fact, a twisted take on family seems to be fundamental to the film.
"They do manufacture their own family - there's the mom, the dad, the two main kids. My poor father does not understand the male figures in my scripts. He's, like, 'What did I do? Why are all your father figures like this?'
"But family is the basis of all tragedy, all drama. No one can hurt us like our families. A character like Dodge, I mean - only your family can push you over the edge like that."