The engine of Bruce McDonald’s “Trigger” is chatter, and it rarely lets up. Gliding along on the controlled nature of its two lead performances, the movie portrays two aging women rockers in unflattering detail. Former childhood friends Vic (Tracy Wright, in her last performance before succumbing to cancer earlier this year) and Kat (Molly Parker) hit it big with their titular nineties punk band. A decade later, both have transitioned into phantoms of their former identities. Although structurally uneven, “Trigger” develops enormous power from the solemnity of these performances.
Kat sells out her anti-establishment roots by evolving into a television executive, while Vic has taken a vain interest in spiritual escape. A black-and-white opening chronicles their wild formative years, establishing McDonald’s feature-length portrait of characters trapped by nostalgia. The majority of the movie revolves around their constant self-analysis — over dinner, at a club, wandering through a party — as they relive missed opportunities and once-sunny worldviews. At best, McDonald crafts a verbal chronicle of a mid-life crisis in close-up, both literally and otherwise. Noticeably uncomfortable in their skins, Kat and Vic veer from arguments about the past to sober conversations about their future, their insecurities reflected in frantic glances and dialogue always on the verge of a screaming match.
The divide between them is clear: Kat attempts to project a confident vibe while hiding her loneliness beneath an obvious ego trip. Vic wallows in the shortcomings of her personal life and suffers from becoming chronically introverted. Together, they eke out their problems and at least come to grips with them; the final sum of “Trigger” comes not from a climax but a succession of ideas.
McDonald has openly stated his initial intentions of modeling the movie on “My Dinner with Andre,” which it literally mimics in an opening restaurant sequence and then maintains the concept through the ongoing two-person-monologue approach. Despite the seemingly thin proposition of making a prototypical “talky” film, the stunt works due to the readily evident chemistry of the two leads. They feed off their respective energies, as do the characters. “I didn’t show up here to eat your disrespect for dinner,” Vic tells Kat in an early scene, but clearly the diet does the trick.
“Trigger” loses its hold whenever it involves more advanced staging than the routine shot-reverse shot of the women in conversation. A plodding scene in which they encounter eager teenage fans, then relive their halcyon days by overtaking a rock show, reeks of obvious drama. But such shortcomings vanish once the women are left alone again. Similar to the stars of McDonald’s “Hard Core Logo,” they bear the profound emotional scars that all rock musicians must. The script (by Daniel MacIvor) views faded rockers much like Noah Baumbach does in “Greenberg” — eternally furious with the decisions made by their younger selves.
Since Wright was already ill at the time of the movie’s production, “Trigger” contains unavoidably eerie allusions to the late actress’s eventual fate. Vic lives in constant fear of death and says so. With Kat’s help, however, she finds a strategy for appreciating her own ability to keep hold on. For Wright, that’s certainly a good way to go out.
“Trigger” will screen at the opening night of the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sunday, September 12.