The title characters in Jasmin Mozaffari’s bang-up Firecrackers are high-school grads Lou (redhead Michaela Kurimsky) and Chantal (Karena Evans), who mouth off to people even when they know there’s nothing in it for them and know they’ll have to fight their way out of yet another fine mess. Lou doesn’t know what she wants but she knows that what she has in her rundown little town with a nasty mother (back again in their shack of a house with a man nearly half her age) will kill her — or drive her to get herself killed, somehow. Lou helps her little brother, Jesse (Callum Thompson), put on makeup because that’s how he wants to be, even if their mom, LeAnne (Tamara LeClair), will accuse her of turning him into a “faggot” — because Lou cares a lot about Jesse but not about her mom’s wrath. Lou has made enough cleaning cruddy motel rooms to get to New York City with Chantal if their empathetic friend Josh (Scott Cleland) will drive them. Lou throws her clothes into a garbage bag and heads out for points unknown — but first Chantal must elude her possessive boyfriend, who has all kinds of ways of wearing her down.
What makes Firecrackers so gripping is that there’s danger to Lou and Chantal everywhere — not just from predatory males and absent parents but from themselves. They’re of this culture and susceptible to it, no matter their smarts and resolve. Lou is horrified when Chantal’s boyfriend grabs her and carries her halfway across the beach but even more horrified when Chantal, now far away, begins to giggle and canoodle with him. Then Lou, who’s fairly wasted, goes off with the boyfriend’s friend to fool around in a pickup, leaving loyal little Josh behind and guaranteeing Josh won’t be so loyal anymore. Mistake, mistake, mistake — given her dependence on him.
This is Mozaffari’s first feature and it’s beautifully modulated from its first frame to almost its last. (The last scene is a weirdly tacked-on mistake that I can’t grapple with here.) It’s good when it’s in motion and the camera zings all over the place with its main characters, who need to stay moving or surrender to despair. But it’s even better — more credible, more painful — when it’s quiet and Lou is just staring out a window at weeds and rutted pavement. The writing is spare. These kids have their own shorthand and can live without pinning things down.
What Mozaffari does better than almost anyone I can think of is dramatize the illusory nature of control. Lou and Chantal have some but not a lot, and sometimes the ways in which they try to get it back (by, say, smashing stuff up or fighting) only tightens the vise. Fighting back feels good and sometimes works but sometimes doesn’t, because the real power isn’t with them. The real power is with the men who have guns they don’t even need to fire to do permanent damage. Reckoning with that power pulls Lou and Chantal apart — I thought of Broken Social Scene’s incomparable “Anthems for a 17-Year-Old Girl,” which begins, “Used to be one of the rotten ones and I liked you for that / Now you’re all gone got your makeup on and you’re not coming back.” Lou and Chantal are the rotten ones in the freshest sense and the fear is that they’ll use what power they have to reject the wrong people — each other.
The actors make the ordinary extraordinary — they give these characters the stature that eludes most superheroes. Kurimsky pares away all the unnecessary externals — her body signals one thing, “I want out.” LeClair, in her film debut, allows us to hate her — until we suddenly glimpse the real albeit struggling mother beneath and realize she’s a victim in her own way. As her on-again younger boyfriend, scrawny David Kingston, creates a complex and pathetic human being out of disparate, contradictory fragments. You come away from Firecrackers marveling not at the characters’ strength but at their unending struggle against weakness.