Victoria Day Commentary

Victoria Day (2009), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is the first feature film of writer-director, David Bezmozgis, but not his first foray into writing. He has published several prize-winning stories and a novel that focus on the immigrant experience. Natasha and Other Stories (2004) won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award in 2005, and was nominated in 2004 for the Governor General’s Award for English fiction, as well as the Guardian First Book Award. Bezmozgis’ first novel, The Free World (2011), was nominated for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.

Set during the week prior to Victoria Day, Canada’s commemoration of the Queen’s birthday, Victoria Day chronicles the coming of age of Ben Spektor (Mark Rendall), the son of Russian immigrant parents, Yuri (Sergiy Kotelenets) and Mila (Nataliya Alyexeyenko). Both the time of the year and the year itself are significant for the film. It is 1988, just prior to the final game of the Stanley Cup, a series dominated by Wayne Gretzky, another hockey-playing son of a Slavic immigrant family and undisputed hockey superstar of the time. The world is an open door for Gretzky and his team, the Edmonton Oilers.  Ben is the star of the Toronto Red Wings, and about to compete for a hockey trophy as well. Everyone is relying on Ben.

The Victoria Day weekend is the last long weekend of the school year; it is often celebrated with school parties. Traditionally in Canada, Victoria Day has been known as “Firecracker Day,” one of two days (the other being Canada Day) when Canadians let off fireworks. At one time, these fireworks could be purchased at any corner store by anyone. Consequently, children had easy access and would light them off all day long, frightening others and occasionally injuring themselves. As a result of such accidents, it became illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to purchase fireworks and their sale was severely restricted to licensed retailers. This engendered a healthy black market for fireworks, something that indicated a sort of rite of passage for teenaged boys.

Ben and his friends Sammy (John Mavro) and Noah (Scott Beaudin) have decided to celebrate Victoria Day at a Bob Dillon concert. But at the concert, Ben notices hockey teammate and class bully, Jordan Chapman (Mitchell Amaral) buying some drugs. When Jordan pressures Ben to lend him $5 to complete the deal, Ben reluctantly agrees, little understanding where this simple transaction would lead. Until this point in his life, Ben has essentially done what others expected or asked of him. He is a model student, one of two chosen to read the announcements at the beginning of every school day. He is a star hockey player, attending all the practices and living out the dream of success in sports that his father, Yuri, had thrown away in Russia. Ben is respectful of his parents’ wishes. In short, he has never had an opportunity to decide what his own values are; he has never been tested.

Or has he? Perhaps he has been tested, but just didn’t notice it. This is the interesting touch that writer-director Bezmozgis introduces to this coming of age drama. The test was the unthinking decision to fund an illegal drug purchase. Ben is used to compliance: at school, at home, and with his friends. Up until now, these decisions have fallen within the bounds of morality; they were so easy as to be non-decisions. But Ben has been caught unawares by the request for a small amount of money, an amount that he might have loaned for a parking meter. For the rest of the film, he learns the cost of his thoughtlessness.

When Jordan doesn’t come home from the concert, no one is particularly worried: he has a history of occasionally disappearing for a few days. Jordan is irresponsible and self-centred. Although, like Ben, Jordan is a talented hockey player and a bright student, everyone agrees that he is a jerk, even his sister Cayla (Holly Deveraux). As it becomes obvious that something might be wrong, an official search is organized for which Ben volunteers. He suspects that Jordan’s disappearance is drug-related and that, in loaning Jordan money, he has become complicit in Jordan’s fate.

The rest of the film follows Ben confusion in reaction to his own culpability. He loses interest in hockey and begins to lie to his parents. He joins Sammy and Noah in a youthful escapade with firecrackers that results in his breaking an arm and thus destroying his father’s dream along with his team’s chance of winning the hockey series. He agrees to a date with Melanie ((Melanie Leishman), a girl with whom he has nothing in common. He then agrees to have sex with her, but regrets it afterwards as meaningless. Worst of all, he has joined the search for Jordan, partly out of guilt, but mostly because he has a crush on Cayla.

Ben’s life is out of control, which is a required element of a coming of age, or rite of passage, narrative. In the space between the innocence of childhood and the experience of adulthood lies a grey area where the old rules no longer apply and where the new rules are not yet apparent. In the best of all possible worlds, the youthful hero of such narratives comes through the ordeal, changed, but unscathed and ready to assume the mantle of adulthood. Bezmozgis understands this trope and allows his hero to survive, shaken by the experience, but now able to take mature decisions on his own.

Victoria Day was nominated for a Genie Award for Best Original Screenplay, for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and for a prize at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Evelyn Ellerman