Film reviews and more since 2009

I Like Movies (2023) review

Dir. Chandler Levack

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Those of us who were young cinephiles might not want to admit it, but we were a Lawrence Kweller at times. Someone so obsessed with film that we lived and breathed it, schooling those who didn’t love the same movies as us and devouring new ones while our peers went to parties and made everlasting memories.

Chandler Levack’s exceptional new film, I Like Movies, is not a love-letter to those individuals. In many ways, it’s an indictment on the perils of their/our unchecked passion; not something we want to hear but need to hear. It’s a hyper-realistic drama with innumerable lessons coupled with divine character work. Its era-specificity, from its presentation to its costumes, makes it feel like a product of the past generation for purposes not exclusive to nostalgia.

Set in 2003, Lawrence Kweller (Isaiah Lehtinen in his acting debut) is a 17-year-old sarcastic, socially awkward cinephile who lives in the suburbs of Ontario. He dreams of leaving his native country and going to NYU film school to become a director ala his idol Paul Thomas Anderson. The only person in high school that even kind of gets him is Matt Macarchuck (Percy Hynes White), and the two have a weekly ritual of watching Saturday Night Live together and shooting videos pretending to host that evening’s show themselves. They call it “Reject’s Night,” since most of their peers are probably out hooking up and going to parties.

Lawrence and Matt have agreed to direct the school’s “year end” video project, but missed deadlines and the lack of a rough cut frustrates their film teacher (Anand Rajaram). When Matt brings on their peer, Lauren P. (Eden Cupid), who is proficient with editing, Lawrence sees it as an insult, and lashes out at the only friend he has. Meanwhile, Lawrence’s single mother (Krista Bridges) keeps reminding him that she cannot afford the expensive tuition at NYU and instead must look at Canadian universities. Lawrence dismisses her worries. He’s got the world figured out in his mind.

In effort to contribute to his college savings, and find something to do with Matt growing distant, Lawrence gets a job at Sequels Video, a local video-store. At first, Lawrence thinks he’ll be able to encourage customers to rent films like Todd Solondz’s Happiness, flex his film knowledge on the masses, and collect checks hefty enough to pay for NYU’s $90k tuition. Then when his new boss, Alana (Romia D’Ugo), tells him he must try and sell at least three previously viewed copies of Shrek by the end of the week, you’d think she denigrated him as a person by the way he reacts.

Lawrence is a lot of 17-year-olds who come from cushy suburbs. He’s self-centered and spoiled. He can’t see a world where his dreams don’t work out. His worst habit might be the fact that he listens to people not in hopes of hearing their perspectives, but in anticipation, barely being able to wait his turn to respond with his own observations. Despite his awkward mannerisms and alienating personality, he is also admirable in his pursuits. The young Lehtinen is a real find as an actor, who nails a dimensional role with sarcasm, affect, and occasional meanness, in turn creating a dynamic individual.

D’Ugo is also strong as a woman who has history in Hollywood. One of the film’s defining moments comes when she expands upon a strong statement regarding movies, which she made to Lawrence during one of his first shifts. She tells of her time as a young and hopeful actress, which of course led to nothing more than being the manager of a local Ontario video-store. It’s heartbreaking stuff, and the monologue is delivered by D’Ugo with quiet conviction. You can tell early on this gentle yet firm picture is in the hands of a female director.

Shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, I Like Movies looks retro. It looks how we’re accustomed to old television looking, before everything from shows to movies adopted 16:9 without question. There’s a certain appeal to this aesthetic, which looks warmer and more intimate than a traditional widescreen presentation. Its muted color palette makes the vibrant DVD cases pop against the drab carpet and walls of the video store, recapturing that safe haven where many of us found our loves of movies. Levack’s film exudes a friendly vibe, even when her characters aren’t necessarily fitting that description.

Lawrence Kweller is one of the most fascinating characters in film this year, and he will no doubt be relatable for those of us who love to log films on Letterboxd and examine our “movie stats” as if they’re baseball cards. While I’d like to believe I was never as pompous nor as alienating as Lawrence, I probably was at times. The lesson in I Like Movies is one that is necessary for those young men and women who are told throughout high school that they need to “look toward college” for the friends and social experience for which they crave. It’s a movie about a character who so desperately needs to stop living vicariously through movies and directors that don’t know he exists, and instead go out and begin making a life he is proud to live, with movies playing a supporting role.

I Like Movies might be the most brutally honest film about cinephiles I’ve yet to see, and that alone makes it a beautiful indie gem.

NOTE: I Like Movies is now playing in select theaters with a VOD release soon to follow.

Starring: Isaiah Lehtinen, Romina D’Ugo, Krista Bridges, Percy Hynes White, Eden Cupid, Alex Ateah, Andy McQueen, and Anand Rajaram. Directed by: Chandler Levack.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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