Little Orphans will stand alone on its real-life opening night this weekend: the only St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival feature, in a year marked by virtual celebrations, to grace a theatre screen.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual festival brought on more movies than usual, offering an online festival pass for audiences instead of its usual medley of galas and workshops.
Its single screening slot went to Little Orphans, which was shot and produced in St. John’s: such a prominent setting throughout the film that it progressively morphs into a supporting character.
Director Ruth Lawrence and writer Emily Bridger weave the bittersweet complexity of returning to St. John’s from the mainland throughout the fabric of the film, following three adult sisters who find themselves in town together for a wedding.
At its core, the film stares down what it truly means to feel at home, surrounded by old wounds, Lawrence said.
“It really depended on that feeling of a small town where everybody knows each other, everyone knows what everyone’s up to, everyone knows your past,” Lawrence said.
“Trying to get away from that past sometimes can be so difficult and impossible.”
Lawrence, a staple of Newfoundland and Labrador’s film scene, will see her first credit as feature-film director at home on opening night on Saturday.
“When you’re working as a director, you’re always looking for the metaphors and the motifs … that are going to really bring your message home without really having to nail it right on the head all the time with the dialogue,” she said. “One of the things I was looking at was that sense of abandonment.”
Lawrence leaves small odes to that feeling strewn amid landmarks any townie would recognize: flashes of soggy toys appear among the wrought-iron fences of city parks, the airport arrivals gate, the row houses of Cochrane Street.
“Nothing’s accidental,” she said.
Tension between the three sisters rises and falls throughout the movie, with moments of intimacy punctuated by angry outbursts or missed connections. In one scene, the sisters arrange wedding flowers shoulder to shoulder, bonding over their absent mother. The next, one sister storms away from the dinner table, throwing her napkin into a pool of gravy.
That frustrating push and pull, Lawrence said, captures the confusion of colliding with your childhood demons.
“It’s difficult, when people have made mistakes, to really escape their past,” she said.
“How do you reconcile them? That what I feel the film really deals with, especially on a family level. How do you make up for what you perceive to be the mistakes and the tragedies and the trauma of your past in that family and go forward?”
Here’s what’s on tap at the 2020 St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival:
The festival runs until Sunday, boasting 11 features and dozens of short films from show runners and actors around the world.