“Why are you so angry all the time?” The heroines of writer/director Jasmin Mozaffari’s debut feature Firecrackers have plenty of reasons to rage. Living in poverty in a suffocatingly small Ontario town, recent high school graduates Lou (Michaela Kurimsky) and Chantal (Karena Evans) have little hope for their futures. All they see around them is squalor, crappy jobs, abusive boys, addiction, intolerance, and violence. This is why these battle-hardened besties, who throw punches as easily as f-bombs, have plotted a way out. For a year, they’ve scraped together the wages earned cleaning scuzzy motel rooms so they can runoff to New York. They’ve slung they’re possessions into a pair of garbage bags, compiled one thousand dollars into a tattered envelope, and arranged a ride with a pick-up truck-owning pal. But a horrid incident derails the pair’s plan, pitching them down a path littered with stinging tears, shattered glass, and wretched compromises.
Drawing inspiration from her own brushes with sexual harassment, Mozaffari constructs a man’s world that seems specially made to break women down. But from the opening scene, we know Lou won’t go down easy. She’s introduced in a fight, grabbing another girl’s hair at the scalp, and hurling her rival to the ground, then pummeling until her knuckles tear. She’s a tomboy with a foul mouth, split-lip, and a hard stare. She favors long basketball shorts and oversized t-shirts that swallow her slim limbs and small breasts. Her long red hair, frizzy and free-flowing, whips around her when she throws her body into a fight, fury, or flight, as if they’re the raised wings of an attacking bird of prey. She’s quick to the fray, but has a soft spot for her little brother Jesse (Callum Thompson) and her best friend Chantal. Still, her big heart and short fuse can lead to trouble.
Where Lou tends to explode in outbursts and violence, Chantal favors flirtation to get her way. The girlier of the two, she charms with giggles, sultry dancing, and a feigned breeziness. But her femininity doesn’t shelter Chantal from the gruff men whose desires and blatant misogyny invade the girls’ lives again and again. These harassments and violations weigh on them both. But Firecrackers centers on Lou, who witnesses one after another of her loved ones (and loathed ones) lose a bit of themselves to the crushing compromises demanded to just get by in this wicked little town that offers nothing but bad choices. She eye-rolls as her in-recovery mother gives praise to God while taking back the bad influence boy toy (David Kingston) who’s a temptation in more ways than one. She glares as Chantal coos over a pair of sketchy older men in her attempt to find a new escape. She trembles as even her little brother is forced into to surrender a part of himself and his identity to appease those around him.
The subplot about Jesse is deeply moving. He’s introduced as a seemingly standard-issue pesky little brother, complete with nosiness and loud mouth. But when Lou ducks home to pack her stuff up for the trip to New York, she finds Jesse wearing one her more feminine tops and playing with her make-up. Though initially territorial about her things, she soon softens, leading to a tender montage of the pair playing dress-up and dancing as Jesse’s cheeks shimmer with glitter eyeshadow. Then they’re mom Leanne (Tamara LeClair) comes home. Stares coldly at her young son’s vogueing, she scolds Lou for “trying to turn him into a faggot.” Later, Leanne pushes Jesse further by demanding he get a buzzcut, presumably like the other boys in town. As the electric razor sheers away his locks, Jesse’s little face is tense, while Lou’s is tender. Her fingers gently stroking the fallen hairs as her other hand holds her brother’s, giving a silent support. Unspoken but evident is the tug Lou feels to stay, if only to protect her brother. But in the end, she gives him all the support she can. Some compromises are just too much.
Firecrackers is a raw nerve of a film. Mozaffari’s script has a naturalistic quality that’s authentically gruff, with her teen heroines spitting purposefully provocative words with relish. The handheld cinematography by Catherine Lutes throbs with energy and emotion. The camera chases these wild girls through dark alleys, into musky abandoned buildings, and across empty parking lots, painting their world as one of stagnation while revealing their vitality. Though the film deals with these young women’s bodies and sexuality, Lutes’ lens never dips to ogle them or expose the nude flesh that’s implied out of frame. The camera takes the perspective of these girls, emotionally and sometimes literally. The Female Gaze will be expressed in close-ups that linger over the clinging wet t-shirt, the arm muscles, and rugged mug of a man who both repulses and excites Lou. In this scene, slow motion enhances the expression of her fascination. But in an actual sex scene, there’s no swooning, dreamy, slo-mo. Instead, there are shadows, and close-ups that focus on faces and frenzy, not T&A.
Playing in striking contrast to these handheld shots and intimate close-ups are a series of wide shots that focus stilly on the skies above. They are pastel, blues and pinks, swirling clouds, and always gorgeous. Below them, the town with its hard lines and racing electric wires seems a crude, dark intrusion. The sky — always presented with a peaceful silence — gives breath to Firecrackers‘ drama, and a focus of hope. For while the sky looks on indifferent to the tragedy and terror that Lou and Chantal face, it also carries the promise of a place beyond, a great unknown where they might escape the mistakes of their mothers, the abuse of their lovers, and the choking demands of a patriarchal culture that values young women only as objects of amusement, consent be damned.
Following in the tradition of films like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and American Honey, Firecrackers delivers a raw coming-of-age drama about a girl living on the fringe, who must fight for her every happiness to grow beyond the crushing confines her world inflicts upon her. In short, Mozaffari has delivered a film bold, bittersweet, beautiful, and undeniably brilliant. That she’s down this fresh out the gate is even more remarkable.