Wildfire | TIFF 2020 Review

by Andrew Parker

A simply told but richly detailed story of siblings coping with a shared trauma and the spectre of mental illness in different ways, Wildfire, the feature debut of Irish writer-director Cathy Brady casts a thoughtful shadow that only grows larger the longer one sits with it.

After being reported missing for over a year, Kelly (Nika McGuigan) is returning to her native Northern Ireland to pay her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) a visit. Kelly is a wild child, prone to flights of fancy and manic behaviour, while Lauren is a happily married, gainfully employed warehouse worker. Tension between the two in the wake of Kelly’s previous disappearance, and questions still linger around the inciting reason she left in the first place: the suspicious death of their mother, which could’ve been either an accident or a suicide.

The familial divide at the heart of Wildfire is intelligently conceived and emotionally true to life, with Lauren having long dormant feelings and impulses awakened by Kelly’s sudden return. Although McGuian (who tragically passed away last summer after a lifelong battle with leukemia) knocks it out of the park with the showier and more erratic part, Noone is just as vital to the story, turning in a slowly mounting performance that makes Brady’s film so uniquely cathartic. They match each other perfectly, and the unforced nature of Brady’s writing gives them plenty of room to flesh out compelling performances.

There’s not much of anything surprising when it comes to the nuts and bolts details of Kelly and Lauren’s plight, but Brady does an exceptional job of treating a family’s multi-generational struggle with mental illness with grace, tact, and forcefulness when necessary. But what makes Wildfire so surprising is just how well the narrative functions as a metaphor for UK/Northern Ireland relations in the era of Brexit and in context with the country’s traumatic past. Wildfire subtly, but noticeably makes the political personal, gradually bringing those links to the forefront as the film reaches a conclusion. It’s a well rounded drama about the unbreakable bond of siblings, but also a call for social and political contemplation.

Wildfire screens at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival on Wednesday, September 16 at the West Island Open Air Cinema at Ontario Place at 9:00 pm, and indoors at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, September 18 at 12:00 pm. It will also be available to stream for a limited time via Bell Digital Cinema starting at 6:00 pm on Thursday, September 17. All online screenings for TIFF 2020 are geolocked to Canada. If seeing a film in cinemas, please take all necessary precautions. Practice social distancing, wear a mask, and stay home if feeling ill.

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