Venice 2022 review: The Maiden (Graham Foy)

“Foy has created a beautiful, at times haunting tale of friendship and grief that ends with a final act that will leave many befuddled but keep the film lingering on the mind for quite some time.”

It’s not often that cinema throws you a curve ball. The Maiden, the feature debut of Canadian filmmaker Graham Foy, manages to blindside the viewer with a puzzling (in a good way) supernatural twist in its narrative. Up to that moment, about half an hour from the end of the film, The Maiden is a patient and carefully observed portrait of adolescent life in suburban Calgary, Alberta and dealing with loss at a young age. Then Foy pulls the rug out from under us to give us a beautifully rendered and unexpected friendship between two characters whose relationship may be imagined or on another plane of existence altogether.

Kyle and Colton spend their Calgary weekends doing what you would expect North American boys their age to do: they speed through the streets on skateboards, spray-paint tags, engage in acts of mild vandalism, and hang around abandoned construction sites. Kyle is the more extroverted type, a braggadocious kid with an easy smile, and the natural leader of the two. Colton is more of a follower, a soft-spoken, cautious young man with a wave of curly hair. They talk about their not well-formed plans for the future, a future that gets cut short for Kyle when one night he walks onto the train tracks.

The death of his best friend devastates Colton, and he spends his days visiting the sites he frequented with Kyle, perhaps in hope of finding closure or to turn back time and somehow prevent the fatal incident. Kyle’s ‘Maiden’ tags, which the film gets its title from, are everywhere around him, as if to say Kyle will always be around in some way. Returning to school, Colton finds little support in well-meaning teachers that are unable to get through to him, but makes an unexpected connection with a classmate he got into a row with earlier. As Colton slowly regains his footing, the film shifts perspective when he finds a girl’s diary near the tracks.

Whitney is a socially awkward, borderline autistic girl with only one true friend in school, June. When June tries to work her way into the school’s cool clique, the introverted Whitney withdraws and embarrasses her friend, leading to the breakdown of their friendship. Whitney loses herself in her diary, retreating into her own world until she goes missing. A search party is organized, already witnessed when Colton ran into it near the tracks at an earlier point in the film. Time is clearly jumbled here.

And this is the moment when things go topsy-turvy. In the woods Whitney encounters Kyle, and the two hit it off. Gone is his braggadocio, and we see a young man who shows genuine interest in Whitney, a true friend who boosts her confidence. They visit a construction site together, a site we saw Kyle and Colton at earlier, and they find the same tape recorder with old music on it as the two boys did. “Wish you were here,” the song goes, a poignant reminder of the separation of two people who loved each other.

When Colton reappears in the film, yet again in that same construction site, the ambiguity about the scenes between Whitney and Kyle starts to creep in. What initially seems like this may be Colton imagining a beautiful moment in time between his best friend and the girl from the diary is thrown in doubt when a black cat appears. It’s not the cat’s first appearance, but earlier in the film Kyle and Colton found the kitten dead. Is this a reference to Schrödinger’s cat? Are we looking at a parallel universe? The film leaves all of it open to interpretation, less concerned with a logical, airtight narrative than with creating a mood and telling what story there is through image and soundscape. This review basically ‘spoiled’ the whole plot of the film, but the plot is not the point; form and expression are.

Foy’s vision is a formalist one, and he shows a confident hand in making his debut such a pared-down work of poetry. Kelly Jeffrey’s 16mm cinematography and long tracking shots enhance the film’s very specific texture, although stepping back one can see the influence of, say, a Gus Van Sant circa Elephant. But The Maiden has its own rhythm and visual language, in which light and darkness, sound and silence dictate mood. Foy has created a beautiful, at times haunting tale of friendship and grief that ends with a final act that will leave many befuddled but keep the film lingering on the mind for quite some time.