TIFF 2022 | The Young Arsonists (Sheila Pye, Canada) — Discovery

By Madeleine Wall

It’s not always a bad thing if a house is haunted. Over a long hot summer in the late ‘80s in non-specified rural Canada, Nicole (Maddy Martin) and Veronica (Jenna Warren) take over the abandoned house that used to belong to Nicole’s family. Both are keen to get away from their own homes; Nicole’s family is still fractured from the death of her older brother Seamus, and Veronica’s alcoholic father is escalating his abuse. In this small farming town there’s little to offer these teenagers but vast empty fields and abandoned buildings, so these best friends, along with two other girls, spend their nights and days here, their parents none the wiser.

In artist Sheila Pye’s first feature The Young Arsonists, the pains of puberty and too early adulthood are tinged with the supernatural. Nicole, in voiceover, speaks to her dead brother, readily visited by his ghost. Veronica, erratic and impulsive, is doing her best to handle her homelife, and both girls wrestle with their budding feelings for one another. Though they attempt to remain idyllic, stealing cars to joy ride and listen to mixtapes, the adult world encroaches as the summer begins to end, no matter how violently they fight against it. It’s a pleasure to see how the film has developed from Pye’s artistic practice; her photographs, which work with ideas of femininity, nature, and the supernatural, have always promised a wider, richer narrative behind each still life. There are some issues, for example, with secondary characters, including the two other girls who our protagonists spend the summer with; they’re underdeveloped, existing mostly for Nicole and Veronica to react against. But the film treats puberty and adolescence as a magic rather than a horror, and, in the process, Nicole and Veronica learn an old, uncanny lesson—that sometimes in order to create something new, you have to destroy the old first.