The 11th Annual Toronto Youth Shorts will be taking place on August 16th to 17th. A wonderful launch pad for future storytellers, the festival continually cultivates and champions emerging cinematic voices. Featuring 40 short films made by young Ontario-based filmmakers, there is a wealth of diverse stories that will satisfy all cinematic tastes.

This year’s festival is divided into four programs – Sparks, Self-Reflection, Kith and Kin, and Moving On – that each offer unique examinations of the human experience. Take for example Jonathan Elliott’s emotionally charged drama Taken Home which observes two indigenous siblings, Tom (Austin Silversmith) and Claire (Sarah Swerid), trying to adapt to life with their new foster family. Anchored by strong performances from its two leads, Taken Home captures the need to maintain a connection to one’s cultural roots. This is especially important when immersed in an environment that only associates your heritage with stereotypes. An engaging work that tackles its themes with a delicate but powerful touch, the film leaves plenty of food for thought.

Another film that tackles the themes of isolation and longing for one’s culture is My Country is Missing. In this personal documentary director Liza Korotka reflects on her internal conflict regarding studying in Canada while violence erupted in her homeland of the Ukraine. Though Korotka does a solid job of highlighting her desire to find familiar cultural touchstones of home in Canada, the film does not flow as smoothly as one would hope. There are a lot of topics Korotka touches on, such as her commentary on the rest of the world’s blindness to the plight of the Ukraine and the economic fallout of the war on her parents, that never gets fleshed out. This makes for a documentary that is both interesting and uneven.

Crushed

Speaking of documentaries, Ava D. Harness’ timely film Private-Parts is an informative exploration into the battle over Ontario’s Sex-Ed curriculum. Changed in 2015 to incorporate issues such as consent and LBGTQ2+ diversity, the curriculum was later scraped by the incoming Conservative government led by Doug Ford. In speaking with educators, politicians on both side of the aisle and the students stuck in the middle, Harness crafts an insightful portrait of how politics and the lack of proper discourse about human sexuality is putting this generation in harms way.

The inability to properly discuss issues related to youth sexuality is one of the underlying themes that pops up in Nicholas Facchini’s film Life in Bathrooms. Based on three distinct incidences in narrator Evan Arbic’s photo series, the film uses the bathroom as a symbol of empowerment and confusion for youth. Although societal and religious upbringings play a huge role in how the events unfold, the film never delves deeply into any of these factors. While Arbic may laugh off these moments as no big deal, Facchini misses the opportunity to make some profound statements about sexuality, faith and the pressure that society often place on youth.

One film that does a good job of capturing the pressures and complexities of youth is Rowen O’Brien’s Crushed. The film follows two friends, Nicki (Cynthia Ritchie) and Ellen (Julia DeMola), who grow increasingly close over the course of the school year. However, things get very complicated for Nicki when romantic signals get blurred. Skillfully building their friendship naturally, O’Brien constructs a film that effectively captures the awkwardness of attempting to navigate one’s emotions, and the desire for connection, within the often unforgiving realm of high school.

Carrots

One film that takes a comedic, and somewhat bittersweet, approach to our desire to connect with others is Molly Shears’ charming film Carrots. Living with her father in a motel, and on a strict carrot diet, Zoe (Katrina Elmsley) longs to reconnect with her mother who is a popular internet health guru. Hiding her diet and declining health from her father, Zoe must decide if living up to her mother’s image is what she truly wants. An engaging character study, Shears’ film effectively captures the various dynamics that Zoe has with each parent. This allow the film to utilize its subtle wit to construct a nuanced experience that is surprisingly layered.

Taking a broader comedic approach to family connections, Lara Cordiano’s Landed Citizens plays like a light-hearted Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In the film Rob (Robert Ryan Reyes, who wrote the script), who is of Filipino descent, meets his girlfriend’s parents, who are white, for the first time over Thanksgiving dinner. Accustomed to more conservative interactions with his exes’ families, Rob struggles to get use to the family’s more liberal approach to love and sex. While the film uses humour to show the awkwardness many people of colour feel in that situation, Cordiano’s film never explores the racial differences beyond a surface level. Part of the this is a result of Rob’s neurosis taking up so much unnecessary oxygen in the room. One walks away without learning anything about the other characters, they are just a prop to set up a mildly amusing punchline.

This longing to know more about key figures in a film also occurs with Camden Abdull’s Beautiful Bird. In this sparse film a young girl navigates her new foster family and the sense of grief she must ultimately deal with. While the film shows glimpses of poetic beauty, from both a story and stylistic point, the emotional punches do not quite land as expected. Abdull simply does not let the film breath enough for the audience to truly get to know the characters. As a result, when tragedy strikes, the response never feels as palpable as it should.

For the full list of films screening at Toronto Youth Shorts be sure to visit the festival’s website.

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