Ah, to be 13 and in love/lust/confusion again. Such is the world of Emerson Thorson in the terrific new film Whole New Thing by writer/director Amnon Buchbinder (The Fishing Trip) and cowriter Daniel MacIvor (Past Perfect, Wilby Wonderful).
Emerson is a precocious teen who’s written a 1,000-page novel and recently entered the grown-up world of wet dreams. He lives in an eco-home with his progressive parents Kaya (Rebecca Jenkins) and Rog (Robert Joy) who have decided to send him to a public school for the first time in his life.
Resistant at first, Emerson goes to his new school and develops a crush on his English teacher, Don Grant (MacIvor). Don is a reclusive 42-year-old gay man who finds Emerson’s fiery presence inspiring in the classroom. When Emerson makes a move on his teacher, Don retreats, provoking an outburst from Emerson that could get them both into a lot of trouble.
Meanwhile Kaya is having an not-so-secret affair with neighbour Denny (Callum Keith Rennie) and Dad’s failing business of recycling human waste (“I turn shit into gold”) leads to a dramatic breakdown.
The film itself was born out of a whirlwind production. Buchbinder and MacIvor came together with only a week to write the first draft. “There was nine months from conception to completion,” notes Buchbinder. “I wouldn’t say it was rushed – the metabolism of the story required it.”
The story is loosely based on a crush MacIvor had on a teacher when he was young. “I was younger than Emerson at the time. Amnon had a script for a kid. He suggested making it a gay kid and I said, ‘Yeah!'”
The performances in the film are nothing short of superb. Emerson is played by first-time screen actor Aaron Webber who strikes a great balance of teenage innocence and maturity. “It was like we watched Aaron growing up as an actor over our 15 days of shooting,” Buchbinder recalls. “He more than held his own, and he was working with three of the smartest and quickest actors anywhere.”
MacIvor himself gives an amazing performance. With his mixture of pathos and humour, he has been referred to as a Canadian Jack Lemmon. “I was pleased with my portrayal. The only other time I felt that way was with my character in The Five Senses. I didn’t have any cringing moments watching myself.”
MacIvor’s prominence as a theatre and film director precedes him. Asked whether there was any concern about his star’s directorial experience intruding during shooting, Buchbinder chuckles. “We both wondered what it would be like going on set. We had a code word if I ever felt that Daniel was overstepping. I would say ‘Daniel, I love you.'”
“It was nicer than saying, ‘Shut up and back off,'” adds MacIvor. “I don’t think he ever had to tell me he loved me, though.”
A 13-year-old boy making a go for his older teacher is a rather delicate subject. “It was clear that it was kind of a provoc-ative subject,” says Buchbinder. “I hope that the universal elements of the story will be what people respond to.”
MacIvor was a little more worried at first. “My concern was people hearing about the movie and judging it beforehand – you know, those fanatical rightwing people who do that. For the character of Don it wasn’t a question of his sexual interest in Emerson. I like men. The twink thing is not my thing. I just transferred that to Don’s character.”
The film’s take on sexuality is refreshing. As Emerson explains his crush to Don, “It’s not a gay or straight thing. Those are just labels. I just want to feel close.”
Buchbinder’s direction helps leave things open-ended. “Is this a gay coming of age story? My tendency was to not bracket it that way. I know that when I was 13 my sexuality was undefined as well.”
The finished film is funny, human and engaging. “Working in sub-zero Nova Scotia temperatures and seeing that everyone was there for the story to be told,” MacIvor says, “that was pretty special. It’s what filmmaking should be.”