For Lawrence Kweller (Isaiah Lehtinen), the 17-year-old cinephile protagonist of “I Like Movies,” the film’s title isn’t just a statement of fact. It’s also a suit of armor, an all-purpose excuse, and an earnest attempt at connection. Connection isn’t easy for Lawrence, a state of affairs that’s only partially his own fault. He’s sullen, callous, condescending, stubbornly delusional, and even a bit sexist (like many geeky boys of his age and era, he has a hard time believing that girls can also like movies). But he’s also intelligent, ambitious, hyper-articulate, and as vulnerable as a baby bird that’s fallen from its nest.
Lawrence exists on a continuum that also includes “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer and “Lady Bird’s” Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, but he’s a more realistic character than either of them. All teenagers think that they’re special and it’s extremely unfair that the world has yet to recognize their gifts. But “I Like Movies” is too grounded of a film to entertain these fantasies. Making her feature debut, writer-director Chandler Levack has pulled off a rare trick here by making a movie that feels warm and safe without coddling its protagonist.
“I Like Movies” takes place in the very specific setting of Burlington, Ontario, in the winter and spring of 2003. The period trappings are minimal, and knowing; in a sign that Levack shares at least some of her main character’s obsessiveness, the passage of time is marked by the rotating titles on the shelves of Sequels, the video store where he gets a job at the beginning of the movie. Working at Sequels is a dream for Lawrence, who — after some initial humiliation from his manager Alana (Romina D’Ugo), who informs him that he must also sell the DVDs of movies he doesn’t like — channels all of his creative energy into creating a “Staff Picks” shelf for the store. He also volunteers to work until midnight on Saturdays, because it’s not like he has anywhere better to be.
For cinephiles of a certain age, the video store scenes in “I Like Movies” will be achingly nostalgic. (This reviewer did time at a similar store in college, and got a little verklempt at the scene where Alana shows Lawrence how to rotate the soda cooler so the newest bottles are at the back.) And the film just begs for the pause-and-screenshot treatment, with insert shots documenting Lawrence’s weekly haul from Sequels and conspicuously placed marquees and white boards listing the latest new releases. A missing VHS copy of “Wild Things” is a major plot point. Two characters go to see “Punch-Drunk Love” together. Levack glides the camera across the new release wall at Sequels, betting that her audience wants to browse those shelves as badly as her characters do.
This self-aware construction of Easter eggs is one of the film’s more affected qualities. The other comes from occasional spikes in the comedic tone from relaxed and natural into a more sketch-comedy type of exaggerated awkwardness. The whole movie could be like this, in crueler and less empathetic hands. The fact that it isn’t is a testament both to Levack’s script — the movie embellishes its wisecracks, and underplays its drama — and Lehtinen’s performance as Lawrence. As he’s forced to reckon with the fact that he’s probably not going to go to NYU and become Todd Solondz’s favorite student, Lehtinen knocks down his character’s walls to reveal the frightened, emotionally volatile boy behind the neckerchiefs and jargon lifted from movie magazines.
The connection between director and star in “I Like Movies” is very intuitive; depending on the context, subtle shifts in Lehtinen’s posture and facial expressions can serve as punch lines or gut punches. A scene where Lawrence has a panic attack in the back room at Sequels, sobbing and gulping the air as he hastily changes into his maroon polo shirt, is heartbreaking enough to make a viewer forget that this is the same character whose “buuuut moooooooommm” is grating enough to be used as a weapon of war. It’s a remarkable performance from the young actor, who has been working in TV for about a decade but makes his debut here as a leading man.
The chemistry and dynamic between Lehtinen and D’Ugo is also very unaffected, up until a well-intentioned but miscalibrated #MeToo monologue almost breaks the illusion of relatability. It’s not that things like what happened to Alana before she started working at Sequels don’t happen in real life. It’s just that the fact that it happened to the manager of the suburban Canadian video store where a naive movie lover in need of some serious humbling just happens to work is a little neater of a plot device than this otherwise unassuming film normally leans on. It does give some necessary context to Alana’s abrasive, no-nonsense personality, however, just as the intelligently parceled out backstory about Lawrence’s conspicuously absent father adds layers to his obnoxious fragility.
The film’s other major plotline, about the gradual dissolution of Lawrence’s relationship with his best friend Matt (Percy Hynes White), is also tidy, hitting all of the usual emotional and structural beats for stories about two loser teenagers who grow apart as they enter adulthood. While ostensibly the “A” story for the movie, it’s not missed as much as it might be when it, too, fades into the background. This aspect of the film is also endearing, however, particularly a scene where Matt and Lawrence play their favorite game on what they’ve dubbed “Reject’s Night”: Coming up with and acting out their introductions as “cast members” in imaginary opening credits for “Saturday Night Live.”
“I Like Movies” is not one of those films that attracts attention by aggressively breaking the rules, however. Levack understands the limits of what she has to work with for her debut feature — this was an ultra-low budget project, with Levack citing a figure of $125,000 in one recent interview out of TIFF — and wisely decides to work within them. Backed by strong writing and even stronger performances, the result is a film that is small but not slight, sweet but not cloying, and the kind of thing that can make even a cynical critic like movies again.
“I Like Movies” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.