Written and directed by Wiebke von Carolsfeld, The Saver is a relatively passive motion picture. It is an adaptation of Edeet Ravel’s 2008 novel of the same name and the cinematography by Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron does provide a vivid and intimate aesthetic, but there’s something missing beneath the surface.
This is Von Carolsfeld’s third motion picture after 2002’s Marion Bridge and 2013’s Stay. The former was notable for featuring Ellen Page in her first feature film performance, while the latter starred Orange Is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling. In The Saver, von Carolsfeld has once again captured lightning in a bottle with 15-year-old Imajyn Cardinal.
Cardinal is Fern, a teenager living in Montreal. She cleans houses and plays cards with her mother (Michelle Thrush), but her life is turned upside down when mom dies. Fern has no money and nowhere to go, so she drops out of school and manages to become the super of an apartment building by lying about her age.
Fern contends with the requests of the tenants, including the frosty Mrs. Coleville (Pascale Bussières), and gets a job at a restaurant. There’s a language barrier between her and her boss (Hamidou Savadogo), but she eventually wins his respect. And things are further complicated when Uncle Jack (Brandon Oakes) pulls up with his best intentions in tow.
The film doesn’t have a lot of momentum and that works both for and against it. It doesn’t spend a lot of time pining for itself, like when Fern’s mother dies and the movie reacts in the same way the teenager does: it doesn’t seem to care. Emotions are buried below the snow-white Montreal surface, where they rest in the Canadian gothic melange until a final push is required.
Von Carolsfeld’s approach makes a certain kind of sense, even if it does leave the viewer out in the cold. Much of the film is spent watching Fern as she accomplishes her various tasks and works on her big idea. She wants to become a millionaire and thinks she can do so by saving her money. She lives rent free and eats at work, so it should be easy. Right?
The goal seems like pie in the sky to most people in Fern’s life, but she doesn’t care. She has the tenacity required by a teenager in today’s world, even if she doesn’t realize how much of her path has been paved. She does possess healthy bitterness and a fear of Youth Services and she doesn’t want to slip through the cracks like her mother. She won’t be another statistic.
Fern is also given to insolence and she really is a shitty super. She greets every knock at the door with a “what the hell do you want?” attitude and fails to see the parallels in the refractive Coleville, who is having her own problems adapting to life’s curveballs. The two characters make for interesting counterparts.
But before their contrasts can be examined in any meaningful way, The Saver pulls into the station. The conclusion isn’t so sudden as to be entirely unearned, but there’s something tidy about it that cheapens the value of Fern’s experiences. Perhaps there are lessons for the character, like the value of second chances, but any sort of postscript is left to the imagination.
There’s something to be said for The Saver’s handling of grief, especially in terms of the imprudent manifestations heartache can provide. And Cardinal’s portrayal of a mad-at-the-world teenager is praiseworthy. But the movie hinges on too many conveniences and lacks a pulse, which leads to a narrative chill that prevents access to anything but drab misery.