Meet the Canadian Filmmakers Making Waves with Breakthrough Films

Celebrate National Canadian Film Day with 'Therapy Dogs,' 'I Like Movies,' 'Slash/Back' and more

Photo courtesy of Sphere Films

BY Rachel HoPublished Apr 19, 2023

There was a shift in the Canadian film industry back in the '80s and early '90s. Exciting new filmmakers like Clement Virgo, Patricia Rozema, Atom Egoyan and Mina Shum offered fresh perspectives with films like Double Happiness and Rude. Since then, Canada's film landscape has gone through periods of robust health and, inevitably, some dips resulting in less than stellar results. 

The last couple of years has seen the breakthrough and debuts of promising talents whose careers we can't wait to see unfold. There are a number of filmmakers we have our eyes on, but there are five exceptional voices in particular who have stood apart from the rest.

As we celebrate the 10th annual National Canadian Film Day today, here are five Canadian filmmakers and their films to check out today and in the years to come.

Ethan Eng, Therapy Dogs
(Mongrel Media)

One of the funniest audience questions I've heard at a film festival was someone at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival asking Ethan Eng how long it took him to recover from a fall that takes place in his film Therapy Dogs. The fall, which would have most certainly killed a person, was clearly a stunt, but it exemplifies the fine line Eng towed in his directorial debut.

Therapy Dogs is seemingly a documentary about Eng and his buddies during their final year (2018–2019) at Cawthra Park Secondary School. The film has inadvertently served as a time capsule for Canadian high school life pre-pandemic — but what's more interesting is how Eng weaves a fictional storyline throughout, creating a unique documentary-narrative hybrid feature. The result is a movie that feels raw and real, as well as being holistically compelling as a piece of storytelling. 

Hailing from Mississauga, ON, Eng has a lot ahead of him. After screening Therapy Dogs at Slamdance, Eng was awarded with a fellowship at AGBO, the production company of the Russo Brothers. He's also kept busy in front of the camera with a supporting part in the upcoming film BlackBerry. Suffice to say, Ethan Eng is a name to remember.

Nyla Innuksuk, Slash/Back
(Mongrel Media)

One of Exclaim!'s favourite films of last year, Slash/Back is the directorial debut of Igloolik, NU-born Nyla Innuksuk. Taking place on Baffin Island, the film follows a group of young teenage girls as they attempt to defend their community from an alien invasion. Slash/Back is a kinetic and thrilling ride through the long summer days of Nunavut that introduces us to a group of new actresses, as well as showing off the territory's natural splendour.

In addition to directing Slash/Back, Innuksuk co-wrote the film with Ryan Cavan, presenting a refreshing take on not only the Attack the Block-type film, but also on the well-worn coming-of-age drama. The relationship between the girls is given a spotlight amidst the impending attack on their land that is both comedic and engaging. Innuksuk also organically incorporates aspects of Inuk culture into the story and characters in a way that's authentic and dynamic — and sorely needed in the Canadian film industry.

Charlotte Le Bon, Falcon Lake
(Sphere Films)

Prior to directing, Charlotte Le Bon enjoyed a prosperous career as a model, television presenter, artist and actress. She's worked alongside the likes of Helen Mirren, Idris Elba and Christian Bale, while also being a successful street artist and illustrator in France. Her short film Judith Hotel premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2018, with her feature film debut, Falcon Lake, premiering at the same prestigious festival in 2022.

The Montreal-born artist and filmmaker, rather suitably given her illustration background, adapted Bastien Vivès's graphic novel Une sœur for her first film. Following a young French boy on a family vacation to Quebec, Falcon Lake is a coming-of-age film that takes a decidedly gothic and rather macabre tone, especially given the typically joyous nature of the genre. 

Le Bon uses striking imagery to elicit the desperation in losing one's childhood that is stunning and, at times, disturbing. Taking cues from the nature of the titular location, Falcon Lake relishes in finding elements of hope and wonder that contrast with the dark despair of impending adulthood that lingers around the characters. Le Bon's artistry lends her work a degree of flair that not many are able to introduce, making her films richly and uniquely visual.

Chandler Levack, I Like Movies
(Mongrel Media)

I Like Movies has touched the filmgoing public in a truly special way. The '90s Ontario suburban nostalgia aside, Chandler Levack has hit upon a nerve that resonates across all generations, races and genders: the annoying arrogance of the budding cinephile.

Most intriguing to me about Levack's directorial debut was the gender swap between the subject (herself) and the character (Lawrence Kweller, a teenage boy played by the excellent Isaiah Lehtinen). It should be noted that the film is semi-autobiographical in nature and not everything Lawrence experiences is according to Levack's life, but undoubtedly the film is deeply personal to the first-time filmmaker. Deciding to make Lawrence a boy gives the character, and in turn the story, an innately different vibe from Levack's own experience. 

By using a male actor and mixing in Levack's voice and perspective creates an almost genderless character. This also adds an interesting texture to Lawrence's relationship with his boss, Alana. A story that's relatively simple in its premise, Levack encourages a nuanced interpretation that challenges audiences to view our own childhoods in a different light, exemplifying this filmmaker's bold approach to directing and screenwriting to shake up the Canadian scene.

Anthony Shim, Riceboy Sleeps
(Game Theory Films)

It seems every film festival Riceboy Sleeps entered, it came away with some sort of award or recognition — including winning the Best Canadian Film Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association last month and Best Original Screenplay at the 11th Canadian Screen Awards. While it could be ignorantly dismissed as the Canadian Minari, Riceboy Sleeps showcases a wealth of filmmaking prowess from director and writer Anthony Shim that makes the film distinctly its own.

There's a grandness to Riceboy Sleeps, especially when Shim takes us to South Korea's countryside. The expanse of the ocean, mountains and forests mirrors the wide universality of Shim's story of a young mother and son who emigrate from Korea to Canada. They also provide a sharp contrast to the quiet, intimate moments between mother and her son, and at times, a mother with her own thoughts. Shim traverses these tones effortlessly, while also making references to Korean folklore that lend familiarity for Korean audiences. His eye for the micro and macro is truly impressive, and the fact that he can exercise such versatility without losing sight of the story is all the more commendable. 

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