Scarborough is a lovingly crafted film, directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson and adapted by Catherine Hernandez from her own acclaimed novel. Loosely based on her own experiences running a home daycare, Hernandez gives voice to the underprivileged and minority figures that populate the lower-class Toronto suburb of Scarborough. It is this personal connection, along with her focus on tangible social change through a local literacy center, that helps Scarborough avoid becoming another exploitative piece of poverty porn.
The literacy centre provides a safe space for low-income families to let their children socialize, eat snacks, play, and engage in learning activities. It is run by the kind-hearted social worker Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani in an affectionate performance) who just wants to help in any way she can; she takes the time to give the impoverished parents and children food, even when her angry white supervisor admonishes her for her charity.
The film follows three separate families who attend the center, and Nakhai and Williamson mainly concentrate on the children’s attempt to understand the harsh circumstances that lead their parents to scrape and save while running on empty fumes. This viewpoint will inevitably draw comparisons to The Florida Project; Scarborough does not have the same colorful, fairytale aesthetic, opting instead for a more realistic docu-style. but it does have just as much heart.
Similar to Sean Baker’s film, the child actors bring the natural purity of youth to their roles and deliver moving, naturalistic performances. Nakhai and Williamson shot many of the film’s scenes from the waist up to immerse the spectator in their young protagonists’ point of view; this allows audiences to fully witness the schoolchildrens’ fractured world through the waning innocence of their eyes.
The sweet, portly Bing (the adorable Liam Diaz) frequents the nail salon where his single mother works after they leave his abusive, mentally ill father; he finds solace in his new friend Sylvie (played by Essence Fox, a pure delight with her beaming smile) whose harried mother must deal with her husband’s injury and son’s severe behavioral problems. Laura (Anna Claire Beitel) has the most dismal storyline; her mother is a drug addict who abandons her for days on end with no food until she is placed with her white supremacist father who has his own addiction and rage problems.
She is a despondent figure whose head hangs like a cowardly dog and her haunting eyes pierce with a stony, vacant stare as she peeks through the curtains of her oily hair. The severely damaged girl is also in dire need of educational aid at the literacy centre because even though she is in elementary school, she cannot read. Beitel depicts Laura’s dissociation from the acute trauma of her upbringing with chilling intensity. In the moments where her father loses his temper, you can see Laura putting up internal walls to prevent any noticeable emotional reaction that will set him off further. Beitel demonstrates an insightful maturity in her keen understanding and expression of the psychological impact Laura’s familial distress has on her.
All of these children endure immense suffering, but there are many light-hearted moments that depict their free-spirited play and evolving friendships, thereby preventing the film from becoming too grim. The children have very sunny dispositions in spite of their circumstances, and Bing and Sylvie’s strong bond with their mothers, as well as Laura’s burgeoning relationship with Ms. Hina, are strong sources of the film’s overall warmth.
Hernandez’s script interweaves the perspectives of both the children and the parents, making for a well-rounded depiction of working-class life. As a queer woman of colour, Hernandez brings her inherent understanding of prejudice to her writing. She touches on the small but impactful moments of racism her leading women of colour experience: the judgemental side glances, under-the-breath remarks, and blatant glares. Bing’s mother is forced to genuflect to the white customers as if they were regal monarchs; Laura’s father makes grotesque remarks about Ms. Hina’s Muslim identity; a white, blonde Karen bitterly disapproves Ms. Hina’s omission of Christmas carols during the holiday season. These tiny moments drawn from Hernandez’s personal compassion have a deep and profound emotional resonance.
Despite its ample running time, Scarborough still leaves you wanting more, and you are completely engrossed in Nakhai and Williamson’s authentic portrait of this very specific community. The directors find beauty in the quotidian details of the main characters’ hardscrabble lives as they try not to buckle under an unfair system. The poor, the men and women of colour, and the children who suffer abuse—these are the voices that need to be heard, and Scarborough proudly amplifies them.
Much like its child protagonists, Scarborough overflows with honest feeling—pensive, playful, somber, and joyous all at once; it is never saccharine or overly dreary. Scarborough is an unmissable drama with open-hearted energy and an incredible amount of empathy.
Scarborough had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival
by Caroline Madden
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.