I Like Movies Review | In Love, Not Like

by Andrew Parker

For her heartfelt and perceptive debut feature, I Like Movies, Canadian writer-director Chandler Levack looks poignantly and critically at the healing and destructive nature of cinematic obsession. Focused on a young man at a critical point in his already stunted maturation process, I Like Movies holds sometimes annoying and socially distancing idiosyncrasies with kindness and complexity, suggesting quite understandingly that even the youngest curmudgeon in training still contains multitudes. What could’ve easily been a silly one-note comedy with a pretentious, unlikeable protagonist instead becomes a pleasingly fraught and sometimes daring character piece that zeroes in on the positives and negatives of pop culture obsession with laser accuracy.

Isaiah Lehtinen stars as Lawrence Kweller, a Burlington, Ontario teenager, cinephile, and wannabe filmmaker with a social circle that doesn’t extend beyond his closest friend, Matt Macarchuck (Percy Hynes White). They spend most of their time either watching or making their own movies, the latter of which Lawrence takes very seriously (even when his confidence seems misplaced). But as high school starts coming to a close, the academically middling, Bogdanovich-esque cravat wearing Lawrence makes heading off to film studies mecca NYU his only goal in life. Pulling further away from Matt and his perpetually frustrated mother (Krista Bridges), Lawrence immerses himself in his dream job: clerking at the local video store. In-between complaining about the bad taste shown by the video renting public at large, Lawrence starts to form a bond with Alana (Romina D’Ugo), the older store manage who doesn’t seem to love movies very much.

Set in the early 2000s (when VHS was dying out and DVD sales were firmly taking over) and taking some inspiration from Levack’s personal experiences growing up, I Like Movies has chosen a perfect time period in which to weave its tale of growing up nerdy with a chip on one’s shoulder. Levack imbues I Like Movies with plenty of nods to the cinematic heavyweights of the day young master Kweller idolizes: Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Solondz, and Terry Zwigoff in particular. The surface level delight for most movie buffs is Lawrence’s inability to reconcile the fact that he’s living through an experience that would be right at home with the stories told by his favourite filmmakers of the day. His pursuits are single-minded, there’s obviously no small amount of depression, and Lawrence – even though he would never admit it himself – is his own worst enemy and not the hero of his story.

Really, there aren’t any heroes to be found in I Like Movies, and that’s just fine. Levack’s script nicely balances lighthearted jabs with serious, empathetic darkness. Outside of examining Lawrences cine-mania, I Like Movies is primarily and most movingly a story about people stuck in ruts they can’t seem to escape and what it takes for them to get through the day. Isaiah and his mother are both coming to terms with a loss neither of them is dealing with in a healthy manner; their relationship most closely resembling two semi-trucks speeding down the highway in opposite directions. Matt wants to remain friends with Lawrence, but it’s getting harder every day. Alana – who sometimes shows streaks of awkwardness that can equal those exhibited by Lawrence – clearly hates her job, but she doesn’t enjoy talking about the reasons why. Even the other employees at Sequels Video (which is lovingly brought to life in painstaking period detail by Levack and her team) seem to be using their job as an escape of sorts from other issues that are simmering in the backgrounds of their lives.

But what Lawrence fails to grasp is that movies are on the back burner for everyone around him, while he has placed them on the biggest burner in front, cranked the heat, ripped the knob off, and left it to boil over unattended. He’s wholly earnest, but also a jerk, and therein lies the dramatic conflict around which Levack sets her character piece. Levack intrinsically knows that most people who would see something pitched at the level of I Like Movies likely is, was, or knows someone like Lawrence, which makes meeting a character this obstinate half-way becomes easier. 

Anyone with a deep, obsessive love of media – whether its movies, music, video games, books, whatever – has probably had an awkward or tense conversation with someone whose passions don’t align or run quite as deep. (Ask me about the time when I was a teenager when my friend stopped his car in the middle of an intersection and told me to walk the rest of the way home because I wouldn’t shut up about how awful I thought The Bone Collector was!) While I’m sure everyone with similar obsessions has had those sorts of moments at least once in their lives, Lawrence constantly lives in that space, like he genuinely believes he has cornered the market on being a misunderstood genius; always forcing his opinions even when they aren’t welcomed or appropriate. Lawrence operates not only with a good amount of hubris, but an unchecked amount of optimism that things will always end up going his way, when in reality, anyone with a bit more life experience can see that things are only going to get worse for this young person before they get better. I Like Movies takes a long, hard, and often quite funny look at the difficult road towards self-awareness, not merely coming of age.

Levack has discovered a perfect collaborator in Lehtinen, a young performer who finds the emotional boundaries of a character as difficult as Lawrence with great perceptiveness. Despite Lawrence’s irrepressible energy most of the time, Lehtinen always conveys just a touch of sadness behind his eyes, softening the character’s sometimes grating nature ever so slightly. It’s a character that might seem one note on paper, but through Levack’s execution and Lehtinen’s astute performance, no one else on screen ever has the same reaction to Lawrence twice. D’Ugo, Bridges, and White gives outstanding supporting performances by always reacting to Lawrence’s sometimes self-destructive rants, monologues, and flights of fancy with curiosity and understanding before resorting to harshness.

As I Like Movies shows, there’s a distinct danger in idealizing art for selfish purposes, but there’s also an unquestionable amount of self-soothing to be found in that headspace. It’s not a movie that’s strictly about loving films or nostalgia for a time gone by, but rather a deep dive into the lives of flawed, easily recognizable people who still deserve love even when they’ve done everything in their power to push away those who can provide it for them. It’s a lot more difficult and low key philosophical than most viewers might be expecting, but it speaks volumes to the type of filmmaker Levack is turning out to be.

I Like Movies opens on March 10, 2023 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (with a Q&A featuring Levack, Lehtinen, and D’Ugo following the 7:00pm performance on the 10th), Cineplex Silver City in Burlington, Playhouse Cinema in Hamilton, Cineplex International Village in Vancouver, and Cinema du Parc in Montreal. It opens at The Cinematheque in Winnipeg on March 11 (with a Q&A featuring Levack following the 7:00pm screening on the 11th and the 8:00pm screening on the 12th). It will expand to additional Canadian cities throughout the spring.

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