Sheila Pye’s Striking Feature Debut Wants To Burn It All Down [TIFF]

Dec 14, 2022

#MeToo has done a lot of good for culture in the five years since the movement’s birth. But there’s bad to take with that good, too, like the endless and awkward sloganeering that commodified the cause as a series of catchphrases: Dismantle the patriarchy; smash the patriarchy; burn down the patriarchy. The last of these, at least, fell out of popular use after Daenerys Targaryen’s blazing heel turn in the “Game of Thrones” finale, because no one wants the necessary work of breaking up macho monopolies over levers of power associated with the indiscriminate incineration of innocent men, women, and children.
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So it’s a happy day for fans of the “burn” formulations: Sheila Pye’s feature debut, “The Young Arsonists,” takes arson to heart in a story that reads like distant kin to movies like Lukas Moodysson’s “We Are the Best!” and Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides.” There is patriarchy here, that’s for sure, and the patriarchy could use a good, solid scorching, but Pye zooms out to place a broader emphasis on those levers of power, too; the film isn’t just about being a woman in a man’s world but about being a kid in an adult world, poor in a rich world, queer in a straight world. Powerlessness is the movie’s oxygen. Pye’s characters are largely helpless, even when they help themselves because if every single facet of civilization stacks the deck against you, even the most drastic action won’t get you the justice you need.
“The Young Arsonists” balances two leads: Nicole (Maddy Martin) and Veronica (Jenna Warren), best friends watching life’s parade slowly pass them by in the middle of Rural Nowhere, Canada. Sometimes when the parade passes by, Veronica impulsively flashes it. Mostly she and Nicole idle along through discontent. Veronica’s dad, Gavin (Joe Bostick), is an abusive alcoholic; Nicole is still grieving her brother Seamus (Kyle Meagher), whose accidental death-by-thresher kicked off the domino effect that led to her dad, Dale (Aaron Poole), and mom, May (Miranda Calderon), losing the family farm. Is it a boon or a bad sign that Nicole sees Seamus’ ghost everywhere she looks, and that she writes diary entries addressed to him? Folks grieve in their own ways. Some just aren’t as spooky as others.
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Pye hits a nice sweet spot for genre, right in the confluence where the supernatural flows into the hyper-real. “The Young Arsonists” rejects straight-up realism equally as much as straight-up horror; it’s a ghost story the way that any movie about small-town economic repression is loosely about ghosts. Dilapidated roads and disused houses don’t start out that way, after all. It takes time, tight bank accounts, desperate attempts at hanging onto the lands people call home, banking foreclosures, and finally, an audible collective shrug from society at large, too apathetic to bother with the woes of others. Nobody aspires to poverty, but poverty happens to them anyways.
Nicole and Veronica are kids, but they know a raw deal when they’re dealt one, so at the latter’s behest, they exercise squatter’s rights and, with the help of their friends Amber (Sadie Rose) and Sarah (Madison Baines), they reclaim that battered farm as their safe space, a haven where they’re able to step out of the shit they’re made to wade in the rest of the time. They make the house shine anew with the resources they have, which, admittedly, are few; they’re not exactly “Fixer Upper” caliber rehabbers. But they have youth’s innocence and optimism on their side. Under their care, Pye shows us a bucolic teenage utopia, though, of course, paradise eventually must be lost. Such are the rigors of drama.
Partly that’s just inevitability. How can Pye maintain anything close to realism if she lets four kids defend their sovereignty over the farmhouse? That’s the stuff of jejune young adult fantasy. The real reason things go south is that even friends run into conflict, and “The Young Arsonists” finds conflict in extremes. Veronica harbors something close to a blood grudge against the development corp that literally bought the farm; all she needs is one push in the wrong direction, and she’ll choose violence. She’s projecting, of course. Ranking people’s problems from least to most oppressive is a terrible pastime, but it is true that Veronica has the worst kind of trouble at home. Force is the language she best understands. Meanwhile, Nicole struggles to grapple with and ideally let go of Seamus’ gruesome passing, a moment Pye hints at through flashbacks she parses out over the film’s 90-minute runtime. Saying goodbye is hard under antiseptic circumstances. It’s harder still under bloody ones. 
By contrast, Amber and Sarah are given less definition, but Pye picked her cast wisely. Martin, Warren, Rose, and Baines vibe with authentic fellowship, whether in good times or bad. Veronica being a lit firecracker, any moment spent with the quartet is a moment that could turn chaotic in the blink of an eye, particularly if Amber, the timid one of the bunch, gets on her nerves. “The Young Arsonists” is expressed through a dreamy, eerie aesthetic except when Veronica feels like bullying someone. It’s a complicated choice, to ground the movie most firmly when friendship feels most in peril–or when Veronica is alone with Gavin. But Pye appears to trust the audience enough not to tell them, over and over again, that the world her character quartet inhabits is dangerous. She expects us to understand as much on a fundamental level, so she can focus on how danger seeps into that safe space. 
What “The Young Arsonists” argues, ultimately, is that there is no escaping our burdens. Pye, here and there, loses the thread in the haze of her filmmaking; the message might have driven home with more priority on plot over sensation. But those sensations are so strong that when the movie’s sense of urgency slackens, the viewer remains in the thrall of Pye’s filmmaking and the ensemble’s performances anyway. These girls matter. They matter because they’re victims, because they’re children, because the world doesn’t play fair, and given that the world was built by people, people don’t play fair, either. Through multi-hued wafts of smoke and with a sober sense of how the world works, “The Young Arsonists” gives them the empathy they richly deserve. [B] 
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