“Till the Branches Bend”, which appears in this year’s TIFF Spotlight section, is a promising but poorly executed debut from the Canadian filmmaker Sophie Jarvis. While it tries to be a hymn to peaches and sisterhood and sustainable living, and sometimes a cri de coeur against corporate greed, it’s none of those things. Because they’re all messed up at the same time, resulting in some fleetingly humorous, albeit mostly half-cooked, festival dishes.
The film’s quirky naive hero is Robin, a thirty-something student at the local peach packing house. Immediately, his goodness and natural kindness remind Laura DernRuth Stoops (that both women are dealing with an unexpected pregnancy is purely coincidental), but she could easily pass for ditzier, Canadian cousin of Greta Gerwigby Frances Halladay. She is well-liked in her small community of Montague – located somewhere in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley – and by her free-spirited younger sister Laney, with whom she lives a quiet life. To neighbors, friends and co-workers, she is infinitely friendly and kind, and unintentionally obliging, always with a curious but completely confused look on her face.
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One day, while his classmates are smoking, Robin sees a wormhole in one of the peaches and, opening it, catches a thumb-sized beetle sticking out of the flesh. She takes the specimen to her boss Dennis (a cartoon villain whose rampant ineptitude constantly belies his apparent success), who then calls the bug Gary, whose expert entomological opinion is that it “doesn’t look bug-related”. With an eye on their profits, the big shots decide not to tell Food Inspection about the intruder, leaving Robin with a choice: forget about the cover-up and move on with her life, or take the case a little further.
Naturally, Robin can’t resist figuring out what kind of bug it is; and so, on her way back from an abortion clinic, she visits the Center for Agri-Food Research, run by the National Food Inspection Agency (NFIA), to show one of the scientists there a photo of her six-legged friend. (Incidentally, the insect-fetus parallel, and the film’s commentary on abortion rights in North America in general, begins and ends here.) In a matter of days, the packing house is closed pending an NFIA inspection. , and Robin becomes the scapegoat. to the imminent unemployment of the residents. Meanwhile, Laney becomes romantically involved with a college student; and Dennis and Gary relax with their wives at the country club bar.
There are two main problems with the plot of “Until Branches Dobre”. First, the role of the NFIA. Given the haste with which they close the packing house, one would expect the subsequent investigation to be serious and exhaustive; after all, the fate of several million crops and, by extension, the fate of the city, depends on the veracity of your decision. Surely they would pore over CCTV footage from the packaging and logbook entries and Dennis’ fake internal report, before dissecting the metadata from Robin’s original snap (to prove it’s not tampered with, as Dennis claims ) and conduct interviews with each eyewitness (Robin, Dennis and Gary). But the case they build is neither serious nor exhaustive, as apparently all it takes to influence the Department to vote for reopening is a tame cabal of residents singing lackluster, leaving us to wonder if the NFIA folks are uniformly incompetent or simply took the week off.
Second, there is the problem of arithmetic. With the entire town on the lookout for bugs, it defies the belief that Robin is the only worker or resident who actually sees one before a climate plague on an almost biblical scale and fury ravages the town and its wares. Evidently, Jarvis’ Okanagan is an ecological exception, housing strictly a beetle or a billion and never any number in between. And no explanation is given for this strangeness. All we get is a photo of Robin strolling through the swarm, arms outstretched, like Christiane hatching in “eyes without a Face”, while the beetles ravage the orchards and do their best not to bump into her. But what is this scene supposed to convey? That Robin is some kind of entomizer? That spatially suspicious beetles were figurative all along? The tangible devastation wrought by the plague would suggest the answers are no and no. -poetry.
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Grace Glowicki‘s central performance is pleasantly eccentric, albeit markedly one-note – with that note being an ongoing shyness and optimism in the face of a crumbling quixotic worldview. Likewise, Lochlyn MunroDennis’s uncompromising Dennis is hopelessly bland and inauthentic, present only as a kind of moral piñata that we can all slap and feel good about punching. But not everything is bad. Alexandra Roberts shines like Laney, perfectly capturing the sad, dreamy restlessness of fleeting youth in an ancient city. All the quips and protests are as amusing as they are fearful, and are delivered by Roberts with an ease and subtlety that reveals – just enough – the fantasy life, far from Montague, whose image Laney carries in her heart. There’s a beautiful coming-of-age story buried somewhere in this film; Jarvis just needs to exterminate the bugs and find him.
Competent, too, is the photograph of Jeremy Cox. It subtly adds to the boredom of the desert, evacuating almost every drop of rain and gust of wind from the landscape. (After half an hour of xeric plains and dust-swept streets, you begin to crave a glass of water.) Far less considerate is Kieran Jarvisthe tripartite score by , which irritates from beginning to end with its discordant bustle of leitmotivs. It’s true that the chirping voices of the chorus taken by cesurae are suitably unsettling and oppressive, especially in Robin’s more delirious scenes, but the plaintive flutes and harsh low snores, which live and die for two choruses, announce when the game is in progress. with enough conspicuity to cause even the Z-row to roll their eyes (if they weren’t already deafened by Act I blasts, of course).
In the end, however, the film’s success or failure depends on Robin’s narrative arc – or, more accurately, the lack of one. Of course, at the end of the film, she looks down on the dead land as if she’s learned something about the world and its injustices, perhaps even the occasional benefits of cynicism over politics. But if so, how? Based on what she does (or rather doesn’t do), it’s hard to see how she’s any less naive, impressionable, or invertebrate than she was in the beginning. Our sympathies for their dew-eyed misadventures are never challenged or encouraged – or better yet, completely displaced – by a more mature and dignified admiration for any newfound frankness, denunciation, or courage. Nature simply takes care of things; Robin hardly needs to be there. What Jarvis has given her is a milquetoast protagonism, the kind that only pretends determination, resilience, ecological concern and brotherly love, to embellish her one and only genuine artifice: the simple and sustained request for our pity. But piety alone can carry a film only so far; because, as satisfying as it is at first, you soon get tired of patting yourself on the back. [C-]
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