WHOLE NEW THING directed by Amnon Buchbinder, written by Buchbinder and Daniel MacIvor, with Aaron Webber, MacIvor, Rebecca Jenkins and Robert Joy. 92 minutes. A ThinkFilm release. Opens Friday (April 14). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN
Saturday, April 15th - 7:25pm show at The Carlton. AMNON BUCHBINDER, (dir.) will introduce the film and afterwards have a brief Q&A. Rating: NNNN
The old saying "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" doesn't apply to Amnon Buchbinder. The York University professor teaches screenwriting, but also shows everyone how it's done in his refreshing new film, Whole New Thing.
Last season he published a book called The Art Of Scriptwriting. Talk about setting yourself up for a fall. What if the film sucks?
It doesn't, which isn't a surprise. In person, Buchbinder - like his musician sibling David - comes across as completely in control.
"To me, screenwriting is a craft, it's a very practical thing," he tells me at last year's film festival, in a precise, almost cold, manner.
"The thesis of my book is that story is a living thing, and the whole experience I had writing the film was the best proof I could have imagined. The story just pulled us all along. I think most screenwriting books tend to treat the story as a mechanical thing."
Whole New Thing is anything but mechanical. It's an imaginative coming-of-age tale about a precocious home-schooled Nova Scotian kid, Emerson (Aaron Webber), who's forced to go to public school for math and soon finds himself obsessed with his closeted English teacher, played by co-writer Daniel MacIvor.
The script arose from a casual remark MacIvor made to Buchbinder one night about having had a crush on a teacher when he was pre-pubescent (younger than the film's Emerson).
The genesis of the Nova Scotia setting, however, is more complicated. Producer Camelia Frieberg, who was working with Buchbinder on a bigger project, had some Telefilm money that had to be spent in the winter or she'd lose it. She needed a screenplay to raise the rest of the money. Dilemma: it had to be done on a shoestring budget in January and in Nova Scotia. Buchbinder's other script was set in the summer. Why not attempt the kid-with-a-crush script?
"I don't recommend this as a way to work," laughs Buchbinder. "As a teacher, I thought long and hard about even telling people about how the film was made. When Robert Rodriguez said he made El Mariachi for $7,000, a lot of really horrible $7,000 movies got made afterwards."
Buchbinder says the character of Emerson, who's penned a massive fantasy novel, is partly based on himself.
"I was a little know-it-all who irritated people a lot," he smiles. "I hadn't written a 1,000-page novel like him, but I did publish a fanzine about horror movies that was read on a bunch of continents."
On the other hand, Buchbinder lacked Emerson's confidence with grown-ups. Nor did he ever have a crush on a teacher, male or female.
The issue of whether Emerson is gay or straight is deliberately vague. The boy tells MacIvor's Don that he's not gay.
"But he also says he's not straight," points out Buchbinder. "He doesn't like labels. Daniel accused me of wanting Emerson to just grow up and have kids, because that's what I did, but I don't think that's true. It's possible that Emerson might come to identify himself as gay or straight."
While the film isn't particularly targeted to a young audience, Buchbinder is curious to see how they respond to it.
"I think they have a more fluid sense of sexuality than people did in my generation."
As for the plight of low-budget indie Canadian films forced to compete with heavily marketed American crap, Buchbinder is philosophical.
"On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I think, "Dammit, Canadian films should get more screen time.' On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I think, "Dammit, we should make movies that people want to see badly enough.'
"The situation's more complicated than either of those positions. But it's getting harder for smaller films with no stars in them to get any media attention, Canadian or not. It's Hollywood vs. everyone else."
WHOLE NEW THING (Amnon Buchbinder) Rating: NNNN
Here's a coming-of-age film that could become a Canadian classic. After being home-schooled by his eco-obsessed parents (Rebecca Jenkins and Robert Joy), brainy 13-year-old Emerson (Aaron Webber), on the brink of puberty, goes to middle school. Once there, he fends off bullies but also finds himself drawn to his lonely middle-aged English teacher (Daniel MacIvor).
Buchbinder, working on a tiny budget, shows no special visual sense, but his script - co-written with MacIvor - is subtle and consistently surprising. The slightly androgynous Webber is a real find, and MacIvor is all nervous energy as a teacher who escapes through anonymous washroom sex. What's most remarkable is how slyly Joy, one of the country's most unsung character actors, nearly steals the pic as an uptight ecoholic.