Adoration: In the Eye of the Beholder

2009-05-08 (Limited release)

In writer-director Atom Egoyan’s newest film, Adoration, a young man named Simon (the expressive Devin Bostick) comes of age. A time-honored filmic concept, to be sure, only in Egoyan’s world, “coming of age” isn’t exactly a romp for this teen. In fact, Simon’s journey includes challenges that would break mere mortals of any age: terrorism, exploration through dramatic performance, shattering cultural stereotypes and taboos, and the use of complicated technology — in particular, grappling with the internet and its sometimes daunting immediacy. “Coming of age” isn’t all girls and parties for Simon, which is a refreshing change from the typical fare featuring teen actors.

We meet Simon via a gorgeous, slow-crawling tracking shot, and he is sitting in a Toronto park with his laptop – his primary means of expressing his voice (the score, by Mychael Danna aids in creating a multi-cultural, ominous feeling here and throughout). In French class, his teacher Sabine (Egoyan regular Arsinee Khanjian) recounts for her students the tale of a terrorist who uses his pregnant wife as an unwitting bomb carrier. “People use each other as detonating devices”, said Egoyan, taking time out to talk to reporters in New York during the Tribeca film festival.

An orphan, Simon takes the story to heart, and she encourages him to use his anger and his confusion by channeling it all into a dramatic exercise, in which he assumes the role of the explosives mule’s unborn child and presents his “findings” in a class presentation. “He is trying to re-imagine them [his parents], the viewer must re-filter it. It’s about people dealing with absences. He imagines having a father who is a demon, he wants to go as far as possible into what that might mean.”

What follows this academic exercise is a veritable storm of misunderstanding, as Simon debates his position with his circle of classmates and friends online, and the “play” makes it onto the internet, where it takes on a life of its own. The director called the structure of the film “wildly unconventional. The viewer has to be very engaged, trusting.” We learn through these exercises with Simon that his own parents were killed many years ago, adding another layer to the aura of mystery. Reality is an elusive entity in Adoration. Egoyan never settles for any clear-cut answers, and the ambiguity allows his characters to take on a life of inner mystery, as each is in possession of some form of secret. “The truth is often how people negotiate how things happened,” notes Egoyan. “People take very strong emotional positions.”

Tom (Scott Speedman) has raised Simon as his own ever since his sister (Rachel Blanchard) was killed under mysterious circumstances alongside her Arabic husband. Egoyan does a masterful job of creating tension and drama, as well as providing a nurturing environment for each of these intimate mysteries to unfold deeply and thoroughly, in a way that, in the end, comes together with perfect symmetry. Though each character we meet has an aura of mystery, they are far from vague, though they are almost all not what they seem. “It resonates as a poem would, with layers upon layers” said an ebullient Speedman of the way the film unfolds. “You find something new in it each time. It reverberates.”

Mirroring the story’s emotional and imagined mysteries is the actual look of the film, with innovative usage of light and shadow to convey mood, belying the film’s smallish $6 million budget. “It would be the same movie no matter the budget, said the director. “At $30 million, you’d have to make a different film; you wouldn’t be able to use these structures.” Egoyan said he was going for a “heightened reality” in the golden-hued flashback scenes where we are introduced to Simon’s parents. “I wanted it to seem of another world,” he said, adding that the look was achieved specifically through the use of master shots with long lenses and specific types of lights to produce “a sense of contrast, it was carefully composed. I didn’t want it to seem surreal, but as though it was existing on another plane of reality.”

Thematically, manages Egoyan to touch on many contemporary subjects and politically-volatile issues without ever coming across as heavy-handed. Terrorism, particularly Arab-Israeli violence is firmly implanted into the story, but never overtakes it. Instead, the viewer is presented with multiple, divergent perspectives on each issue. Mortality, racism, intolerance of religion or culture, the impact of grief on young people and obsession are but a sampling of topics that are dissected in this layered tale, in addition to the outstanding look at the proliferation of technology and its direct effect on the way we communicate in modern society.

There are many perspectives happening in the film, both at center stage and on the fringes, as Simon takes his quest for testing the open-mindedness of those around him to a larger audience: the web, where you can both have a voice and be completely anonymous if you so choose. Possessed of striking, exaggerated features, the reedy Bostick, seen in the Canadian epic Passchendale last year, comes across as refreshingly unaffected. “There will be a point when you need to release, and [Simon] has held back this secret for so long, so he can get responses from people” said the neophyte, who brings a nice blend of sincerity and quiet fury to his tricky role. “You need some sort of peace at the end.”

Adoration’s Greek chorus is anything but quiet. Simon’s dramatic explorations are broadcast first to his friends, a group of tech-savvy high schoolers who are communications experts: they are never burdened by the technology, the multiple frames or the over-stimulation of it all. It then begins reaching an extreme cast of characters (a Holocaust survivor and a neo-Nazi are among his followers on the web), while his instructor Sabine suggests they team up to test his uncle’s levels of tolerance outside of school, crossing a teacher-student line in a major way. “They have a strange relationship,” cracked Bostick, of both his on- an off-screen relationship with co-star Khanjian. “It’s a strange relationship that goes beyond student-teacher. So, the weirdness felt natural.”

The film is perceptive in outlining the odd boundaries that must be firmly implanted into an affiliation such as this, but also dares to ask a tougher, more controversial question: what exactly are the limitations of teachers’ powers nowadays? Are they there to simply take care of your children while you are at work, as though they are just state-paid babysitters? Or is it truly their job to inspire, challenge and provoke? Who decides where to draw the line? The hard truth, in reality, is that if a teacher makes one misstep, and, in Sabine’s case, if they broach a politically-complex issue with young people or incite them to think outside the box, they are going to be punished. Sabine’s affections, though, are decidedly more bizarre once Simon and Tom begin to realize just what her bond is to their family’s history. Speedman credited Khanjian for having “a real feel for Atom’s work, so she brings this.”

“Connection” is a major running motif in Egoyan’s work, from The Sweet Hereafter to Exotica, and here he ponders not only the tangible connection between human beings, but also a kind of “connection” to one another through machinery and technology. Being “connected” through the internet, is, in the long run, both dangerously accessible and potentially isolating, and once the message is sent out to the sea of anonymous internet freaks, it cannot be so easily taken back. In sharp contrast to the modern technology running rampant, Egoyan also throws in the element of “Kieslowskian” blind chance, of coincidence, as another essential, more metaphysical motif in his hard-wired world.

As the film slowly builds, these seemingly random little cases, in fact, are all shown to be furiously, intricately tied together. Adoration is the kind of intelligent coming-of-age tale that won’t be making it to the local multiplex anytime soon, but makes for a refreshing, welcome addition to the impending sea of American-made summertime garbage where young men are not required to think or show vulnerability, where they just get wasted and chase girls. Thankfully, we have Simon’s (and Egoyan’s) introspective, challenging viewpoints to get us through ‘til autumn.