There is a tendency in both literature and cinema to use fantasy to help children make sense of the poverty that surrounds them. Thankfully directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson avoid such common ploys in their film Scarborough, a gripping and emotionally rich coming of age tale. From its opening and frantic moments, the harsh and uncertain realities of the world the central kids inhabit are on full display.
For individuals like Bing (Liam Diaz) and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), this means adapting to change on the fly when they are abruptly uprooted from their respective homes in the middle of the night by their mothers. When not bullied at school, Bing, an artistically inclined boy of Filipino descent, spends most of his time after school at the nail salon that his mother begins working at after fleeing an abusive relationship. His circumstances are slightly more stable than Laura’s who must divide her time between a mother who frequently abandons her for hours and a father with anger issues.
Their worlds collide at a before school literacy program, led by Ms. Hina (Aliyan Kanani), for underprivileged kids and their families. It is there where they meet Sylvie (Mekiya Fox), a strong willed and loving girl whose Indigenous family has its own share of problems. Living out of a motel, Sylvie’s mother is struggling to keep the family afloat while navigating her husband’s ailing health and her young son’s autism which has gone undiagnosed.
Though each child is drenched in the downpour of hardship, Scarborough finds its uplifting ray of light in the community they reside in. Accomplished documentary filmmakers, Nakhai and Williamson bring their astute observational talents to the narrative format as they present a slice of life that feels lived in. Adapting Catherine Hernandez’s popular novel, they provide a physical manifestation of the old adage “it takes a village to raise a child.” The bonds of friendship that Bing, Sylvie, and their mothers form with members of the community, be it a local artist or a restaurant owner, never feel forced.
In exploring how a community can take care of its own, even in times of strife, the film effectively exposes how the systems designed to lift people out of poverty are providing further anchors to keep them down. As one sees through the walls of bureaucracy that Ms. Hina frequently hits when interacting with her superiors, there is a disconnect between the creators of the outreach programs and the communities they are meant to serve.
One of the subtle, but fascinating, aspects of Scarborough is how the divide between those who simply throw money at a problem versus those fighting for meaningful change play out along racial lines. Despite being set in Toronto’s most famous cultural melting pot, the decision makers who hold most of the power in the film are predominantly white. What makes this dynamic so intriguing is that the white individuals who find themselves on the poorer side of the fence, take Laura’s parents for example, convey a hostel and condescending tone when interacting with others in the same circumstance. The air of superiority and distain they carry reveals their frustration for falling through the cracks of a system built to give them every advantage. The further they disconnect themselves from the community at large the more tragic their story becomes.
As Nakhai and Williamson expertly show, it is the sense of community that provides a sustainable life-raft in the turbulent waves of poverty. Despite the heartbreaking hardship on display, Scarborough is full of heart and hope. Much of this is achieved due to the sensational performance from the ensemble cast. Diaz and Fox are exceptionally good as Bing and Sylvie, the viewer’s guide through the film’s most gut-wrenching and joyous moments. One of the year’s best films, Scarborough is an uplifting emotional journey that one will not soon forget.