Before I Change My Mind Review | The Kids Are Alright

by Andrew Parker

Trevor Anderson’s teen drama Before I Change My Mind is a curious film. It has a tremendous core concept about the nature of gender identity and a person’s right to privacy, but the way this concept is executed somewhat negatively impacts the rest of the film around it. There’s a lot to love in Before I Change My Mind – enough to recommend it overall – but also a considerable amount of teen movie cliches and narrative vagueness that imbalance the final whole.

The year is 1987, and Robin (Vaughan Murrae) is a gender ambiguous teenager who has just moved from Spokane, Washington to small town Alberta with their single dad, Daniel (Matthew Rankin). Robin doesn’t quite fit in with their classmates, and is often teased and bullied by the boys and girls alike, although perhaps not as much as the school’s lone Asian kid, Tony (Jhztyn Contado). After initially being tormented by him, Robin strikes up an unlikely, but close bond with one of the school’s biggest bullies and burnouts, Carter (Dominic Lippa). That newfound kinship is put to the test, however, when both start flirting with Izzy (Lacey Oake), a girl who has feelings for both Robin and Carter.

Before I Change My Mind makes the wise decision to never assign any specific gender to Robin, which makes the character a lot more interesting and bolsters the relationship they have to Carter. In terms of appearance and demeanour, Carter and Robin are almost mirror images of one another, with the former coming across like what they latter could/could’ve become under different circumstance. That friendship, brimming with no small amount of sexual tension, is a formative and fraught one that Anderson brings to vivid life through a series of well realized, realistically executed interactions. Anderson’s dialogue is effortlessly natural. Anyone who has ever seen a shy introvert suddenly placed into a friendship with a gonzo extrovert will be able to relate to the core dynamic in play throughout Before I Change My Mind.

Murrae is nothing short of a revelation here, delivering a truly star making performance. Their subtle movements, tics, expressions, and sometimes purposefully halted line deliveries suggest a fully lived in character experiencing a push and pull between societal expectations and personal identity. Murrae is a performer who brings out the best in everyone around them, and is constantly elevating Anderson’s material to continually evolving and changing heights throughout the film. Murrae brings a constant sense of tenderness, emotion, and thoughtfulness to all of Robin’s interactions with adults and fellow teens alike. It’s a performance that isn’t the rudder of Anderson’s film, but essentially the entire ship upon which everyone else rises and sinks.

The supporting cast also brings their best to the film, with Lippa making a big impression as the kind of kid who’s clearly damaged, but can be a lot more thoughtful if you catch them at a point where they don’t have an audience to prove something to. Oake turns in memorable work as a borderline wild-child who isn’t a hero or a villain in the friendship between Robin and Carter, but rather their own conflicted person. And special consideration has to be given to Rankin, who’s better known as a filmmaker, but turns in a warm, sympathetic performance of a single father trying to start from a clean slate in a place where he has no friends and only a minimal amount of social skills. Anderson (who also appears as a summer stock theatre director trying to mount a musical about Mary Magdalene) makes the primary characters in Before I Change My Mind into recognizable, everyday people the audience can relate to.

But those characters also present Before I Change My Mind with its biggest hurdles. So much of what these people are going through is left to the imagination or never broached at all. It’s a major swing to leave the main character somewhat ambiguous, and one that pays off for Anderson. It becomes a problem when that ambiguity extends to everyone else around that character. Before I Change My Mind is always offering up breadcrumbs to explain what’s going on in the lives of everyone around Robin, but those breadcrumbs never end up to a full trail that goes anywhere. Hints about what forced Robin and Daniel to leave Spokane and move to Alberta are peppered in throughout via scene transitions shot to look like VHS footage, but nothing fully adds up in a satisfying way, and these interstitial character glimpses are sometimes awkwardly integrated into scenes. Similarly, there are glimpses into the unhappy lives of the people around Robin, but again, there’s minimal information being provided by Anderson. This might be to put every other character on the same thematic plane as Robin, but it takes away from the richness of a full life experience.

There’s also a battle between Anderson’s quirkier comedic sensibilities and the more serious story beats throughout Before I Change My Mind. While there’s certainly some fun to be poked at 80s hair and fashion choices (which make up for the fact that the production design can’t fully pull off this kind of period piece on a minimalist budget), and some of the gags (including a high school band made of nothing but saxophones, an MTVified biblical stage musical, and a field trip to the West Edmonton Mall being a major life moment) are quite funny, these lighter flights of fancy don’t hold up well when placed into context with the place Anderson is heading. Things get very dark, very quickly in the final act, and the escalation feels forced rather than organic. Also, like a lot of other things, it leads to a vague point that’s not saying much of anything and giving little for the viewer to go on.

But while the situations in Before I Change My Mind are vague and some of the character motivations are thin, it’s the performance and depiction of these characters that keep the viewer locked in and engaged. Murrae’s work, in particular, makes this a film well worth checking out, even if it’s hard to puzzle through some of the plot developments and character beats after the film has ended. It’s not perfect, but none of us are.

Before I Change My Mind plays at Revue Cinema in Toronto on April 19, 21, and 22 (with a Q&A featuring Trevor Anderson, actor Vaughan Murrae, and producer Alyson Richards after the screening on the 19th), Metro Cinema in Edmonton on April 19, 23, and 24 (with a Q&A featuring co-writer Fish Griwkowsky and producer Katrina Beatty after the screening on the 19th), and VIFF Centre in Vancouver on April 19, 20, 23, and 24.

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