By Saffron Maeve
The freight train barrelling along a moonlit overpass shows no signs of stopping, as Colton (Marcel T. Jiménez) cries out to Kyle (Jackson Sluiter), the latter just out of earshot and tramping along the tracks ahead. We’re left with only a protracted noise: the clang and whoosh of bogies hitting rails, without a single yelp or thud to confirm our fear that Kyle—a kind-eyed River Phoenix manqué who picks flowers for cat burials and skateboards down craggy terrain in a leisurely frame of mind—has been killed; our only sign is the reflection of a crescent moon wobbles in the water after the accident, as if the sky is twisting in acknowledgement of some terrible loss. Following this tragic event, Graham Foy’s debut feature The Maiden unfolds as a double-barrelled character study driven by a misplaced notebook, which conjoins the grieving Colton and the antsy, unpopular Whitney (Hayley Ness), a teenage girl who has disappeared. The film takes place in present-day Alberta, where Foy, a Calgary native, deftly peels apart memory and mourning to create a tactile and hauntological two-parter.
Colton and Kyle were childhood friends, as we learn through a photograph of the pair as schoolboys (apparently an undoctored picture, as actors Jiménez and Sluiter grew up together, a real-life rapport that Foy laces into the film’s fabric). Theirs is a tender companionship, with dog days spent skateboarding and projecting fantasies beside a shoebox tape recording of Roger Miller’s “Dear Heart,” a melody that contorts into phantasm when played back in a tacit afterlife. The duo is only briefly shown to us, assembling a bouquet and raft for a cat’s burial at sea, smashing old TV sets, tagging underpasses, and plucking crayfish from the water—a breezy, boyish, and soft-hearted bond cut brutally short, with Colton now left to wrangle the memories. As American poet Richard Siken once wrote, “Sometimes you get so close to someone you end up on the other side of them.”
The same can be said, though less affectionately, for Whitney and her best friend June (Siena Yee), whose friendship is abraded by a snowballing disparity of interests: June falls in with the popular kids when she starts dating a football player—which means trucks, booze and parties—while Whitney, anxious, innocent, and perennially sporting a sequinned knapsack, cannot keep pace, though not for a lack of trying. Before she goes missing, Whitney leaves her diary—chock full of musings about nature and death—tucked under a rock, the hidden tome both gesturing at the film’s thaumaturgical bent and also, perhaps, indicating Foy’s need for some kind of narrative contrivance to thread together his lyrical imagery.
There’s a cozy nomadism to DP Kelly Jeffrey’s soulful 16mm rendering of Colton and Kyle skirting around ravines and subtopia, or of Whitney doubling over on a grassy roadside, post-panic attack. Jeffrey and Foy, who had already collaborated on a number of short films (including Paradise Falls , Practice! , and Lewis ), here render the natural world as a salve for adolescent affliction and a bedroom for ghostly imaginings; the supernatural seems to linger just out of frame, plaiting together Kyle and Whitney’s paths in what is presumably a post-mortem waiting room, where the social boundary between them melts entirely.
Beyond the obvious echoes of My Own Private Idaho (1991), there are shades of later Van Sant, such as Elephant (2003) and Paranoid Park (2007), in Foy’s sense of stern fate, as well as of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s conduction of motion in the way that characters shrink into the frame, or how time can suddenly curl into itself. Foy has also cited Frederick Wiseman’s High School (1968) as a point of reference (making him the fall’s second Fred-head to go on the record, after James Gray), which evinces itself in a running bit where a highly enthusiastic English teacher raps Shakespeare—a partial rhyme with a scene in High School in which a teacher lectures on the poetics of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation,” and sharing with Wiseman’s film a distinct lack of easy, condescending judgment.
Such well-placed details thrive in coming-of-agers, which typically annex adult hindsight to the transient, frenetic phase of adolescence. There’s the occasional smartphone, Facebook wall, or electronica needle drop to tether The Maiden to the present day, but the film never over-exhausts its indulgence in its age bracket, instead granting its teens a leisurely, contemplative agency. Without resorting to cheap aesthetic signifiers, Foy stays keyed into how it feels to be young in the 21st century: that doomy sense that time is both hurtling away from you and never-ending, a sprawling, pliable temporality that stretches over these teenagers’ lives like cellophane.
Crucially, we don’t see anyone die in The Maiden, a ghost story wherein the dead are less gone than misplaced (even a lifeless cat appears to survive the cosmic wash cycle). While one may occasionally take issue with the film’s determinedly elliptical approach to its central subject, Foy always remains both formally and narratively fastened to the amorphous, ugly, and insoluble reality of grief. His lens fixes on such tactile objects as dust, hair strands, veiny hands, doorframes—peripheral details that, in their studied deployment, cohere into an eloquent expression of Colton’s soft lament or Whitney’s disillusionment. That same quality inheres in the industrializing enclaves that surround Colton, Kyle, and Whitney: unfinished homes, tractors, boom trucks—grinding, ploughing machines of change that serve as a fitting abstraction for the experience of adolescence, and particularly that of these specific teens, who cannot seem to keep the things they love in front of them. Construction apparatuses seem to promise a future while havocking a past; such is the temper of a film like this, which recognizes how nostalgia has the power to both delight and eviscerate.
About halfway through The Maiden—bisecting the film’s two emotionally congruent narratives before swapping out Colton’s perspective for Whitney’s—we witness a student slice clean through three of his fingers in shop class. The fallout is swift: a pair of unnamed onlookers rush the hallways in a choreographed zigzag, pausing at every classroom door to proclaim that “Terry MacDonald cut his fingers off.” Seemingly discordant alongside the film’s otherwise measured action, this injury (quietly observed by Colton) actualizes Kyle’s violent offscreen death, reminding these teenagers of life’s vicious, arbitrary licks. In that sense, The Maiden is a cautionary tale about youth, not as something to be gradually forsaken, but as a charged, eruptive piece of memory which will never go quietly. The people within it, too, populate our psyches long after they are gone, coursing through love songs or poetry, locomotives, and black cats. No one is ever really gone, Foy tells us, and we stand to meet ourselves and each other again and again.
Canada, Graham Foy