‘The Maiden’ Review: A melancholy teenage study in the wake of tragedy

Something or someone is definitely haunting the grassy canyon of Calgary, where much of Graham Foy’s ambitious amorphous debut takes place. But whether it’s the wandering spirits of local teenagers caught before their time, or the grief of the friends they leave behind, or the lingering shadow of much of Gus Van Sant’s noughties filmography, or perhaps simply the more fully embodied drama, whose outlines are only discernible through the see-through layers of metaphysics, mourning and 16mm grit it’s very hard to tell.

Foy comes as a filmmaker with an undeniable gift for atmosphere and a clear belief in cinema’s potential to capture the ungraspable, say the unspeakable, and seek meaning that pushes the boundaries of what we traditionally think makes sense. But whether the elegance of its claim is lived up to by the sometimes distractingly elliptical nature of its storytelling is another matter. “The Maiden” is wonderfully moody, but only moves in between.

The detached register in which much of the film takes place is a deliberate choice, as evidenced by the far livelier opening, where we first meet Kyle (Jackson Sluiter) and his best friend Colton (Marcel T. Jiménez), who die during one of the both depend on those empty but paradoxically eventful days we all had as teenagers. They skate aimlessly through boring suburban streets. They talk about nothing and everything and challenge themselves to blast down a steep grassy slope. They discover a dead cat on an abandoned construction site and poke at it with rocks and sneakers with the disgusted fascination inherent in teenagers. But just when it seems like there’s not much more to do than this idle, goofy shuffling and jostling, they decide to give the cat a rather touching farewell. You build and decorate a small raft and send its corpse down the river like a Viking farewell. Suddenly we like them, these lazy, loose, lost boys.

It’s already clear that both are misfits, Kyle, who from some angles resembles River Phoenix in Stand By Me, who is the leader and Colton, a lanky fellow with a sideshow bob haircut and a dangling gait, who is the sidekick . Kyle peppers his speech with f-bombs, more of a verbal tic than a display of actual aggression, and spray-paints graffiti on every available surface – later the ubiquity of his “Maiden” tag becomes a constant motif. Then, just as the characters come into focus, tragedy looms in the form of a late-night stunt on the train tracks, and Colton, suddenly friendless and guideless, following his grieving, isolated figure through school corridors and parking lots, the film becomes similarly unmoored .

It wasn’t until some time later — which seems even longer given Foy’s penchant for indulgently long takes and editor Brendan Mills’ adherence to the less-is-more school of editing — does the story pick up steam again and begin to unleash its allure of the supernatural overtones. In what is perhaps the film’s most successful bold coup, a slow narrative somersault occurs triggered by Colton’s discovery of a battered diary belonging to Whitney (Hayley Ness), a schoolmate of his and Kyle’s who had disappeared some time earlier. As Colton flips through the journal, we follow Whitney’s movements in the days and weeks leading up to her disappearance, with Foy showing a rare compassion for her (like Colton, she’s the shyer of her best friends) as she relives this anxious moment of her childhood bonds become in strained by the new hormonal whirlpool of young adulthood.

DP Kelly Jeffrey’s photography casts a dreamlike magic that makes the transition from dazed realism to dazed abstraction all the more believable. And the see-through plot is grounded somewhat by the edgy performances of the amateur actors. The formal frustrations lie elsewhere, in the understated approach that at times feels like a confident attempt to subvert conventional dramatic forms and jitter where any other film might jitter. Occasionally, an essentially simple if slightly surreal evocation of the yearning contortion of youthful grief is subverted by the filmmaker’s sense, which deliberately intervenes to draw on moments and ponder dramatic beats that don’t quite organically fit the story’s inner rhythms fit his characters.

But when all else fails, The Maiden still lacks style and sensibility, and it’s rare to come across a first film so adept at reinventing such busy territory from the inside out. And once Colton finds this rain-soaked journal, the poetry of Foy’s approach transforms from empty verse into a more powerful brand of internal rhymes. We may wonder if everything after that is just imagination, or if time itself, perhaps tired of rolling forward forever like a train unable to leave its tracks, has been derailed. Perhaps, just because he wished it to the exclusion of all else, Colton transported himself back to a moment when the dead cat, and with it his dead friend, was still alive. Or maybe Kyle and Whitney really are together, in the valley behind the veil. Whatever the case, The Maiden may take its sweet time getting there, but there’s an eerie beauty and a strange kind of comfort in the idea that there’s a place, maybe not that far from it the places they have always haunted, where all the lost children can find each other and where they can find each other.

https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/the-maiden-review-1235389887/ ‘The Maiden’ Review: A melancholy teenage study in the wake of tragedy

Charles Jones

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