Review: The Meaning of Life

by Andrew Parker

The unabashedly corny, earnest, and well intentioned Canadian tearjerker The Meaning of Life never rises above its relentlessly manipulative subject matter, but it’s not entirely without merit. For a film that feels like a product made expressly with the Hallmark Channel in mind and starring an up and coming Canadian pop star, The Meaning of Life is probably better than expected. It’s not better by much, but it’s also not so cloying that it could push viewers averse to pseudo-spiritual tearjerkers to the point of pulling their hair out or recoiling in disgust. It’s unwaveringly chipper in its desire to drain tear ducts, but this type of crowd pleasing, predictable, “inspirational” claptrap has been done worse and more offensively before. If this all sounds like faint praise, it should, but it’s praise nonetheless.

B.C. born pop singer Tyler Shaw makes his big screen feature debut as Finn Faber, a struggling musician torn between following his dreams of stardom and his father’s constant nagging for him to get a real job. After breaking up with his girlfriend because she’s going to university in England (a plot point that should mean something, but ultimately doesn’t), Finn takes a gig as a performing clown at a children’s hospital. Finn’s first assignment at the hospital is to try and brighten the day of Sophia (Sadie Munroe), a nine year old with terminal leukemia, who’s looking at both painful surgery and the possibility of aggressive chemotherapy. (We know this because the hospital’s kindly nurse freely offers this information to Finn the first time we see here, throwing patient-client confidentiality to the wind in near record time so the movie can get on with everything else.) Initially, the depressed Sophia understandably wants nothing to do with some clown nose wearing joker coming into her room and playing “Old MacDonald,” but eventually Finn finds some common ground with the patient. He learns that she loves to paint, and he encourages her to follow that passion. She likes to paint while listening to some of Finn’s original acoustic ballads, and she pushes him towards believing in his own talents.

The Meaning of Life is the latest collaboration between writer-director Cat Hostick and cinematographer-editor-partner Russ De Jong, and what’s most striking and apparent throughout is the strength and fluidity of their working relationship. The Meaning of Life looks rather ambitious for a low budget indie (save for about five or six too many establishing shots of the hospital Sophia is staying at), and each scene is well directed and paced by Hostick. What happens within each of those individual scenes is a completely different discussion, but credit where due: Hostick and De Jong have an exceptional working shorthand that lends The Meaning of Life an unexpected amount of technical credibility. Hostick has a patient sensibility with her actors – which counts a lot when the leads are an acting novice and a young person – and the shots and pacing are undeniably accomplished.

What’s not up to snuff here is Hostick’s script, which is as treacly, inorganic, and forced as this type of material tends to get. There isn’t a single scene in The Meaning of Life that’s devoid of cliches or credibility straining contrivance or convenience, making for a patently unbelievable experience that will only stir tears from those who have the sensitivity of a car alarm that can be triggered by a light breeze in an otherwise empty parking lot. 

Sophia is written as a child that’s both wise beyond her years and struggling to understand life, death, and whether or not God exists, making one of the central characters into a maddening contradiction. Finn is nothing more than a nice guy with a good smile and a seemingly unattainable dream. He doesn’t seem to have more than a single friend to confide in (the even peppier and more irrepressibly upbeat and positive Jake Raymond), and whenever they talk about Finn’s problems they do so via laughably contrived banter during a game of one-on-one or having drinks at a bar. Outside of the tangible supports that Finn and Sophia give each other, anything good or bad that happens for these characters seems to be pulled miraculously out of thin air for the sake of moving the story along, like his landing of a meeting with a record producer as a result of playing to a “crowd” of six people in a bar. And how much do you want to bet that every chance Finn has to forward his musical career will be inconveniently timed to a major moment in Sophia’s treatment? (Answer: you don’t want to take the under or over on that bet.)

The Meaning of Life is the sappiest cinema tends to get, complete with a musical score that feels like it’s been stolen from a soap opera and not a movie. It’s the kind of movie that only works if you don’t watch many movies, and anyone with a low tolerance for this sort of thing should avoid it like the plague. It’s aimed squarely at the sort of people who don’t care what they watch as long as it makes them ugly cry, and by those standards, the best I can say is that The Meaning of Life at least isn’t as offensive as some of its tearjerker brethren (save for a curiously aggressive anti-chemotherapy undercurrent that’s distracting and somewhat dubious). As far as films about jokesters wearing clown noses to cheer up terminally ill patients goes, at least it’s leagues better than Patch Adams.

Despite having to recite clunky, exposition laden dialogue, the chemistry between Shaw and Munroe is solid and relaxed. Although he’s a novice actor who occasionally makes a few missteps, Shaw has a leading man style charisma that can’t be denied, and the character’s kind hearted nature feels earned without coming across as goofy or like the performer tasked with playing it is trying too hard. Munroe never plays into any obvious tics most child actors fall into when playing like they’re on death’s door, which probably gives a learning actor like Shaw a lot more to work with. Although the lines of dialogue they’re speaking sound almost alien in terms of their banter and specificity, Shaw and Munroe still wrestle some respectability from the material. (It should also go without saying that the numerous musical numbers peppered throughout The Meaning of Life that are on hand solely to showcase Shaw’s talents as a singer are strongly performed, but almost none of these tracks have anything to do with the film itself.)

It’s also worth noting that stories about sensitive people who can’t help but getting close to the situations of others in need are always inherently interesting. The individual scenes as they play out in The Meaning of Life are always straining credibility, but that kernel of an initial idea is a strong one. Within Hostick’s simplistic construction is a more complicated, satisfying, and emotionally stirring movie. Taking the low road here doesn’t do the concept any favours.

The Meaning of Life opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, September 27, 2019.

Check out the trailer for The Meaning of Life:

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