Big tender hearts

In the face of small mindedness

Wilby Wonderful, written and directed by Daniel MacIvor and making its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a bittersweet comedy about a day in the life of the residents of fictional Wilby, a small island town in Nova Scotia. The film is an ensemble piece with at least seven main characters and multiple locations. It’s a very different beast from the intimate nature of MacIvor’s first feature as a director, Past Perfect, which was basically two actors (himself and Rebecca Jenkins) in two locations.

“I wanted to make Wilby as different as I could in order to stretch different muscles. There was a perception with Past Perfect that it was theatrical, partly because I come from the theatre,” MacIvor says. “With Wilby, I wanted to do an ensemble piece.”

And what an ensemble it is, populated by a who’s who of great Canadian thespians, including Paul Gross, Sandra Oh, Maury Chaykin, Callum Keith Rennie, Rebecca Jenkins and Jim Allodi, with MacIvor in a supporting role. It’s a testament to the director’s talent and reputation that he was able to bring together such a stellar cast, many of whom have worked with him before. But this being the Canadian film industry, he’s also known several of them for years on a social level. “Callum and I used to party together in the bad old days, before we smartened up,” MacIvor laughs.

At the heart of Wilby Wonderful is Dan Jarvis (Allodi), married owner of the local video store who’s looking, as the film begins, for a quiet spot to kill himself. It seems that a little nocturnal fornication at the local cruising area has caught up with Dan – his wife has left him, and he’d rather not face the shame of seeing his name in print in the town paper. This being a comedy however, Dan is continually interrupted by the other denizens of Wilby, including the local handyman Duck MacDonald (Rennie), who’s also implicated in the scandal, but sees it as a chance to connect with Dan in a less clandestine way.

Dan’s dilemma touches the rest of the townsfolk in different ways, including the social-climbing real-estate agent Carol French (Oh) who’s selling his house; her husband, the town policeman Buddy (Gross), who has his hands full with the sexy Sandra Anderson (Jenkins), recently back in town with her teenaged daughter Emily (Ellen Page) in tow; and the town mayor, Brent Fisher (Chaykin), who has big plans for the prime waterfront property where the cruising area is located.

MacIvor wrote many of the roles specifically for the actors who play them, including the characters of Dan and Duck for Allodi and Rennie. “Weird, eh?” answers MacIvor when asked about the significance of writing gay characters for straight actors. “But I’ve been in love with them for years, and Jim and Callum are both metrosexuals. They’re so gorgeous, both of them.”


Allodi laughs when I tell him MacIvor’s line the next day. “Daniel’s always falling for straight men,” he says. “That’s a good joke, him having us play gay characters.”

Allodi has worked with MacIvor on stage and screen several times and the two performed his award-winning play In On It on a tour through Scotland, Texas and California. (“There was a screaming match over dirty socks once in Texas and that’s all I’m going to say,” is Allodi’s response to the question of just how well they know one another.)

He’s played gay several times before. “I’m an old queen,” he jokes, so Allodi had no problem conveying Dan’s sexuality. Rather it was the character’s self-destructive mindset that was the challenge. “Dan has married his best friend – lots of people do – and entered a kind of sexless life,” he says, adding that the hardest part in role was, “to get to the truth of someone that you really love in a nonsexual way telling you that you’re worthless. Being thrown away by someone you love in such a total way that you see yourself that way.”

To MacIvor, Dan represents the fear of shame that we all carry inside. “It’s a shame-based world, we run from shame,” he says. For Dan, committing suicide is preferable to the shame of everyone in town finding out he’s gay. Thankfully, he has a guardian angel in the quietly persistent Duck, who has a Zen-like calmness to him that others often mistake for stupidity. Duck, says MacIvor, “is having a parade without having a parade – just by being – and not having to explain himself to anyone.

“There’s something I admire about that attitude.”

As played by the wiry, seriously handsome Rennie (who co-starred with Gross in Due South), Duck is a gay man living in a small town who is at peace and comfortable in his own skin. But as MacIvor sees it, “he’s only really come to peace after having come through the war. Duck has definitely been in some dark places.

“In some ways the love between Duck and Dan has very little to do with the fact that they’re two men – it’s really just about tenderness,” he says. “That’s what I see in them. Duck brings tenderness to bear in the moment and that saves Dan’s life.”

“He’s a babe, I’ve got no problem kissing Callum Rennie,” laughs Allodi, when asked about the dynamics involved in playing intimate scenes with another straight actor. But he admits that it wasn’t all lip-locks and lube. “It was a little tense because Callum is a real cowboy, he’s a guys’ guy,” he says. “I know that neither of us really let down our guard until after the scene began.” Although to lighten the mood, Allodi says, “I kept teasing him about the make-out that was coming, that we were going to be humping any second.”

MacIvor says Wilby Wonderful, like all the stories he tells, is “a tribute to the spirit of survival that we all have in the face of small mindedness.” Not that small towns have a monopoly on hypocrisy, “It just surfaces more baldly there,” says MacIvor. Besides, “Toronto is just a bunch of small towns jammed together; we’re all living in our own small towns.

“I grew up in a small place and spent many years feeling like I didn’t fit in and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that nobody felt like they fit in and we were all pretending that we did… I’m responding to that.

“I really want this movie to play in small towns,” he says, “because I think that’s where the movie will have the most effect in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, for example, this movie is dangerous in a way that it cannot be dangerous in Toronto.”

As for what the future holds for Duck and Dan, there’s an element of wish fulfillment in MacIvor’s vision. “Duck and Dan are the happy couple at the end, ” he says. “In some ways it’s my fantasy of a guy who’s going to come into my hospital room with the nice shirt and the flowers he picked himself.”

* The world premiere of Wilby Wonderful screens at 9:15pm on Mon, Sep 13 at the Varsity.

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TV & Film, Culture, Theatre, Toronto, Arts

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