The tender Canadian teen drama You Can Live Forever succeeds at telling a complex story of youthful infatuation where so many others that came before it have failed. Although this collaboration between writer-directors Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky boasts a plot trajectory that appears familiar on the surface, it’s the rich characters and finer details that sets You Can Live Forever from other similarly themed and pitched films. It’s a fine example of how these kinds of films can speak to the widest audience possible by eschewing narrative shorthand and embracing an expansive range of messy experiences and awkward feelings with open arms and hearts.
Due to “family issues,” Thunder Bay teen Jaime Buckley (Anwen O’Driscoll) has been sent to live with her aunt Beth (Liane Balaban) and former punk rocker uncle Jean-Francois (Antoine Yared) in a small town located along the Saguenay River in Quebec. It’s a tough transition for Jamie – a queer new wave and goth loving stoner – because the community at large and her caretakers are all Jehovah’s Witnesses. She finds a fast friend in a black kid named Nathan (Hasani Freeman), with whom she can smoke, play video games, and chill, but she comes out of her shell most around Marike (June Laporte), a semi-devout believer who seems pretty cool. Jaime develops feelings for Marike, even going as far as accompanying her on missions to stay close. It looks like Markie feels the same way, but her religion and Jaime’s status as a gay outsider make being together almost impossible.
You Can Live Forever is set in the early 90s, but it’s not the kitschy period details, lovely piano rich score, or well considered visuals that are most fascinating about Slutsky and Watts’ work. The true power of You Can Live Forever comes from the firm establishment of complex characters, thoughtful moral conundrums, and setting everything in a richly drawn community, all rarities for a film dealing with young love. Everything about this world Jaime has been plunked down into is interesting, and not merely a vehicle to talk about the ways religion gets in the way of one heart’s desires. There’s plenty of that to be found, but Watts and Slutsky are quick to make sure that the tone isn’t too oppressive and overly melodramatic.
While Jaime fakes her newfound sense of faith the best she can in a bid to stay close to Marike, she enters something akin to a foreign land, one that the filmmakers go out of their way to depict as both vibrant and hollow. The people in the community, including Marike, Jean-Francois, and Beth, all believe in the same thing, but each subtly tweaks their definitions as to what that faith entails. Sometimes they are pushed to ask themselves hard questions about their beliefs, and while they mostly accept that which they feel they can’t change, Slutsky and Watts make it clear that these people can be unwavering in their faith while simultaneously reflecting on what that means. It would be easy to demonize religion and its negatively profound impact on romance (not to mention the stifling nature of suburban life to begin with), but You Can Live Forever never takes the easy road. It trusts that the viewer will see things for what they are, making everything feel more naturally dramatic than manufactured manipulation.
Slutsky and Watts rely heavily on their performers to enrich the material and bring that sense of community and otherness straight to the surface, and they’ve populated You Can Live Forever with both newcomers and veteran talents that are more than up to the task. O’Driscoll makes for a likeable audience surrogate and protagonist, and she does an exceptional job of making sure Jaime’s rougher edges are never smoothed out or compromised for the sake of an easier character arc. She also has wonderful chemistry and rapport with Laporte, who never leans into Marike’s underlying queerness as a crutch, preferring instead to paint the object of Jaime’s affections as someone who wants to be seen as unflappable when they’re really coming apart inside. Freeman is a surprisingly commanding screen presence in a role that could’ve been nothing more than a sounding board for Jamie’s angst. Balaban and Yared excel at making sure their roles as parents never come across as stereotypical, and Deragh Campbell has an outstanding supporting turn as the closest thing You Can Live Forever has to a villain, Beth’s true believer sister.
The romance and drama on display in You Can Live Forever is a pleasing slow burn, and even if the viewer can identify early on that things aren’t going to go smoothly for these young women, that doesn’t make the film any less interesting or engaging. As Marike shows Jaime when they are going out door to door handing out copies of a Watchtower styled publication, it’s not so much what you say as it is how you say it. For Slutsky and Watts, context is key, and without it, subtext can’t exist. You Can Live Forever is an unassuming, but exceptionally composed little film in a crowded sub-genre that sets itself apart simply by knowing what it takes to be great.
You Can Live Forever opens Friday, March 24, 2023 at Cineplex Varsity Cinemas in Toronto, with filmmaker Q&As following the 7:30pm performances on March 24 & 25. It expands to Vancouver and Montreal on March 31, and will open in additional Canadian cities throughout the spring.
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