After being cooped up at home and schooled by his progressive, eco-friendly parents, confused adolescent Emerson Thorsen (Aaron Webber) starts school at age thirteen, eventually developing an enriching but finally unhealthy crush on his sad-sack English teacher, Mr. Grant (co-screenwriter Daniel MacIvor). Naturally, as the coming-of-age drama "Whole New Thing" contends, everyone surrounding the gifted Emerson (he's already completed a fantasy novel at age 13) has a lot of growing up to do themselves: mom Kaya (Rebecca Jenkins), has lately begun flirting with local studs in plain view of her husband, Rog (Robert Joy), himself something of a stunted man-child who's so immersed in environmental causes he's been ignoring his family's emotional needs, while lonely Mr. Grant, as is the case with small-town teachers on film, is addicted to sexual hook-ups in the local abandoned park bathroom.
Director and co-writer Amnon Buchbinder sets up all these characters with such acuity and tenderness (he obviously cares for them a great deal) that for a while, they even manage to not seem like contrivances. It's the kind of Canadian character study that takes its pacing queues from its wintry setting and its multicharacter miseries and sexual awakenings from the Atom Egoyan playbook (a Callum Keith Rennie cameo is requisite); for a while Buchbinder balances it all with aplomb, allowing MacIvor's generous, giving acting to take center stage. Previously seen here as the olfactory obsessed housecleaner in "The Five Senses," MacIvor (a well-known playwright in Canada) wisely avoids all the mannered pitfalls of the lonely high-school teacher, instead summoning up reservoirs of hangdog compassion and surprising wisdom.
When Emerson develops his (nonsexual, he claims) crush on Mr. Grant, sending him an original sonnet declaring his adoration and admiration, MacIvor's reaction is sweet: bemused, turned off, helpful, even trying to force a "Gay is OK!" pamphlet on him. When Emerson's infatuation (intellectual as much as anything) can't be patted away with fatherly advice, MacIvor grows increasingly baffled. The boy's tenacious passion is hard for him to put definitions on. "Whole New Thing" also affords the pleasure of seeing character actor and reliable "weirdo" Robert Joy ("Land of the Dead," "The Hills Have Eyes") given a role that doesn't require him to suck on a dead canary or don ten tons of droopy-eye latex - although Buchbinder does finally devise a way for him to skulk around a yard at night, clutching an axe with a deranged look on his face. Some things never change, I guess.
So, despite its surfeit of gentle indie pop ("All I want is to be in his movie....," one central song coos over and over with Elliot Smith foppishness until you want to jump out a window), occasional reliance on characters simply gazing into space soulfully in place of insightful dialogue, and a third-act devolution into madcap meltdown (rarely has a film fallen apart so fast in trying to zip its characters to resolution), "Whole New Thing" remains a good-natured take on the idiosyncrasies of that baffling period before growth becomes commensurate with maturity.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]