Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Though it carried with it a content warning (child abuse and neglect, racist language, off-screen domestic violence, references to drug use), even this was not enough to mentally and emotionally prepare me for what Scarborough had in store. The only still released ahead of 2021’s version of TIFF seemed to suggest a light familial-tinged drama. Cutesy drama this is not, but thankfully, I mean that in the best way possible. In a nutshell, this portrays kids being kids, and enjoying the little things in the grand scheme of their terrible situations. Scarborough is a special movie with a message, and introduces three star-making turns from exceptional young talent.

Based on the acclaimed novel from Catherine Hernandez, Scarborough follows three different families in their struggles against debt, addiction, and job insecurities. We enter their story by way of three young friends: Bing (Liam Diaz), a Filipino boy whose mom works at a nail salon to support him; Sylvie (Essence Fox), an Indigenous girl who practically lives her life out of trash bags because her family can’t find permanent housing; and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), a little blonde just learning how to properly read and deal with her raging addict of a father. The connecting thread is a morning school program the three participate in that “encourages healthy parenting and literacy,” and is run by the kind and caring Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani).

The cultural differences in all three of the kids makes the carefree charm of their bond ever sweeter. My favorite moment comes in the form of a Napoleon Dynamite-style musical sequence near the end (a cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”) that is uplifting and feel-good after the heaviness of prior cathartic emotional release. When Scarborough hits you with the big moments, it deals punishing blows that reverberate with consequences for every major character. My only complaint is that the balance of childlike glee vs sorrowful circumstance is slightly off-kilter.

Gender politics, autism, and parenting are just a few of the heavy topics that Scarborough dabbles in. A devastating third-act development with tragic consequences is bound to keep everyone talking post-premiere, and for good reason. Directing duo Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson handle the heavier stuff with ease, while cranking out masterful performances from these shockingly great first-time child actors.

Scarborough screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

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