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By Charles Martin | February 3, 2009

The press notes description for “Toronto Stories” ends with this line: Even Toronto-haters are going to have a hard time getting their knives out for this one.

Wanna bet?

I don’t hate Toronto; I’ve never been there. But considering that this anthology film (four stories very loosely linked, yes just like “Paris J’taime,” “New York Stories” et al) is intended as a “love letter” to Canada’s largest city, it didn’t exactly inspire me to come visit. Toronto looks great from afar, as the many location shots will attest; but up close it seems a lot like New York in the 80s, when even Woody Allen was having a hard time loving it.

We start with the film-schoolish setup, a lost (African?) boy with no papers or parents who shows up at Pearson Airport. He escapes the clutches of the authorities (again and again and again) and begins a trek that takes him to random places. He doesn’t speak, yet everyone who encounters him befriends him just long enough to launch their own segment, whereupon he is gone like the feeble plot device he is. This makes it incredibly hard to care about him when his “backstory” is finally fleshed out in the movie’s denouement, the final short “Lost Boys.”

The first piece is called “Shoelaces” and starts promisingly, exploring the relationship of two pre-teens who have a strong friendship, dark secrets and perhaps a budding romance. A promising and atmospheric adventure involving a “monster” who lives in the sewers of Cabbagetown is prematurely terminated for no clear reason (time’s up?), leaving us emotionally unsatisfied despite the strong cinematography and good performances of the child actors.

From there we move into “The Brazillian,” helmed by riot grrl and Canadian media darling Sook-Yin Lee (“Shortbus”) who also stars as a befuddled woman trying (and failing) to coax some romance out of a zombie of a man who appears to have Asberger’s Syndrome. Though the piece is funny and Lee gives an authentic performance, we are again left (this time physically) unsatisfied. Lee’s character encounters the African boy at the library, tries to get him help and then just … forgets about him mere moments later.

Sudz Sutherland’s “Windows,” my favorite short, again features a very interesting storyline: an ex-con who’s gone straight and has what he needs in life (a fun job and a pregnant wife) until he runs into a former jailmate, and a slip of the tongue breaks all hell loose, endangering everyone. This one has action, drama, tension and violence, along with several good laughs. Sutherland could have done with a bigger budget, but it’s still a stylish attention grabber.

“Lost Boys” by David Weaver (“Century Hotel”) tries to wrap up the linking story by dragging the mute kid into the rough world of Toronto’s homeless, where his only angel is a man almost too busy wrestling with his own demons to help. Gil Bellows’ “wittiest, smartest homeless guy ever” portrayal is often in danger of suspending our disbelief, rescued by his frequent returns to a more convincing dark side and internal struggle to break free. It’s these moments that provide the most compelling performance among the four films. When we finally turn to the poor kid — who hasn’t said a word so far — to wrap things up, they miraculously find a translator and he gives us … well nothing really.

The big “reveal” is a complete wet blanket — which, along with the constant presence of crime, police and/or homeless people in every single segment, adds to the general dissatisfaction and despair that seem to snake through this pretty metropolis like the sewers. Aren’t there any happy, well-adjusted people in Toronto?

“Toronto Stories” isn’t going to be adopted by the tourism board, with its apparent message that it’s not the city that’s the problem, but (apparently) the people. I can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers intended this anthology to be a truthful mirror, or a warning to others.

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