Don’t Talk to Irene: Coming-of-age comedy has its world premiere at TIFF 2017
Out of all the celebs one might opt to worship, actress Geena Davis is an odd choice. I mean, we love Geena Davis. She’s a fine performer and has starred in a series of near-iconic pictures like The Fly and Thelma and Louise. But worship? That’s the spine of Pat Mills’ coming-of-age comedy Don’t Talk to Irene, which is currently slated for its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. In it, a frumpy teen named Irene is — according to the opening voice-over (supplied by Davis) — the biggest looser in the teenage history of the small, skid-row town she lives in. While the socially oblivious Irene slogs through the usual High School wasteland of torment and angst, she spends her days and nights “talking” to her imaginary mentor Geena Davis, who spiritually guides her towards triumph. Yes, you read that right.
If that sounds like a good time to you, I don’t blame you. The premise is loopy enough, adding a bizarro twist to the usual “nerd-makes-good” formula that filmmakers like John Hughes reveled in in the 1980s. But Don’t Talk to Irene doesn’t go far enough into its own darkness or weirdness and it lacks the arch, comic book style that make teenage misfit films like Napoleon Dynamite so memorable.
The fault doesn’t lie with the cast, however. As Irene, Michelle McCleod is a real find, fearlessly falling into a roll where her weight is the focal point. See, Irene desperately wants to become a cheerleader, something her overprotective mom has forbidden (along with TV, cell phones and all forms of modern social tech). This of course makes her a moving target for the school’s Queen Bee bitch, Sarah (Aviva Mongillo, who excels at playing unpleasant) who inexplicably takes great pleasure in manipulating and humiliating the awkward girl. After an altercation in a high school shower, both girls are suspended and sentenced to community service at a local seniors home. Here, the film begins to tread its familiar path of whimsy, as Irene befriends the stereotypical cranky and under-stimulated old folks and, along with her woefully cliche Gay bestie, Irene decides to build her own cheerleader squad/dance team in the home, assembling a cabal of seniors and various misfits together while learning that being yourself is the best thing you can be. And of course, that Geena Davis knows more than Jesus.
There are a few caustic, funny bits littered amongst Mills’ otherwise twee, softball script (the cheerleader fisting bit is funny) but more often than not, one is left feeling like Don’t Talk to Irene is just warmed over Todd Solondz repackaged for tweens. If you’re an ardent Geena Davis fanatic, you might like this one a bit more. Otherwise Don’t Talk to Irene is too lightweight for its own good and isn’t bold enough to rise above its tsunami of cliches.