Canadian Graham Foy’s debut is an ambitious portrait of teenage life


Source: F F Films

‘The Maiden’

Dir/scr: Graham Foy. Canada. 2022. 117mins

Grief, isolation, the mental and emotional turmoil of teenage life: all classic ingredients of independent cinema, but given an economical, elliptical and altogether haunting treatment in Canadian debut feature The Maiden. Graham Foy’s low-key drama starts off feeling like a sketchbook piece of fragmented realism, but becomes increasingly dream-like; and soon after it flips halfway to reveal itself as a diptych, we come to realise that it’s a much more ambitious piece than it at first appears. It’s very much a niche proposal but, following its Venice Giornate degli Autori debut, The Maiden should score festival attention with its elegant, low-key style, rich atmospherics and insightful handling of a young non-professional cast

A film that knows what it’s doing – and surprises us at those moments when it reveals its larger design

Shot in Foy’s native Calgary, Alberta, the film begins in a vein not far from the mode of contemporary realists like Roberto Minervini and Matthew Porterfield – with hints of Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, that key teen-melancholy film of the 80s. The setting is a heavily wooded rural area, spiked with patches of drab suburbia, where two boys, Kyle (Jackson Sluiter) and Colton (Marcel T. Jimenez) while away their leisure time. We see them skateboarding, then exploring an abandoned building site where they find a dead cat, which they give an improvised funeral on the local river, where they then go swimming. Everything is episodic and not remotely narrative-driven – until the two boys go walking along a train track at night, and things take a tragic turn, conveyed with characteristically telegrammatic effect by Foy and editor Brendan Mills.

The rest of the first half follows Colton as he adjusts to a changed life, with moments of his high school existence sketched around him in brief sequences; for the most part clipped episodes, although some sequences – notably an awkward counselling session – are allowed to play out at single-shot length. This part of the film is spiked with strange non sequitur moments: a seemingly disturbed boy babbling in class, a fight with Stetson-wearing school heartthrob Tucker (Kaleb Blough) that’s cut off as soon as it starts.

The diptych hinges on Colton’s discovery, halfway through, of a sketchbook belonging to a shy, anxiety-prone girl named Whitney (Hayley Ness), who we already know has gone missing. We follow her through her own schooldays, her disrupted relationship with fairweather friend June (Sienna Yee) and her solitary wanderings through the local landscape – which then appear to take an altogether supernatural turn. Foy appears to be attempting an impossible shift of register here, but brings things together beautifully in an understated coda that returns in a new key to the film’s beginning, and gives this seemingly tragic story an unexpected uplift. 

Arguably a touch overstretched at two hours, and slightly prone to callow melancholia in the longueurs of the second half, The Maiden is nevertheless a film that knows what it’s doing – and surprises us at those moments when it reveals its larger design. The enigmatic title appears partly to refer to Whitney, but ‘MAIDEN’ is also the graffiti tag of Kyle, which comes to haunt the film in an increasingly resonant leitmotif.

The young cast, both leads and support ensemble, make an affecting impression in their part improvised performances – from the  opening, in which Kyle and Colton goof around like a real life Beavis and Butthead, to later passages of empathetically modulated interiority. Shooting on film, DoP Kelly Jeffrey achieves understated painterly effects, not least in the densely atmospheric might passages, and a rich sound mix, including overlapping dialogue coming in and out of focus, is backed up with spare use of music including Jon Hassell, Jim Wilson’s eerie ‘God’s Chorus of Crickets’ and the corny but effective Roger Miller ballad ‘Dear Heart’, heard on an ancient cassette recorder. 

Production companies: F F Films, MDFF

International sales: Celluloid Dreams

Producers: Daiva Zalnieriunas, Dan Montgomery

Cinematography: Kelly Jeffrey

Production design: Erika Lobko

Editing: Brendan Mills

Main cast: Jackson Sluiter, Marcel T. Jiménez, Hayley Ness, Kaleb Blough