When I see reviews that declare a film to be “full of heart” or some such conventional phrasing, I tend to interpret that as a sign that I shouldn’t expect anything original from it. After all, filmmakers can easily manipulate audiences’ emotional states by drawing on time-tested formulas. Want to elicit tears of joy? Have your two characters split from one another, realize how big of fools they’ve been, and then run back into each other’s arms during the film’s climax to the tune of “Solsbury Hill.” Mission accomplished. Does this mean that the emotions the audience experienced aren’t genuine? By no means. It’s just that our heartstrings are easy to pull. What can I say? I’m just as guilty of getting choked up by scenarios such as that detailed above as the next person, and I’ll be damned if there aren’t times when I downright crave that shallow, yet emotionally-stirring cinematic experience. But it’s just that, isn’t it: shallow. A good filmmaker could hit those beats without any effort at all, and that, to my mind, ultimately lessens the value of such pictures.
I raise this issue here because the 2011 Canadian comedy, Starbuck, possesses all the ingredients necessary to create just such a shallow, manipulative experience, yet co-writer/director Ken Scott puts them together in a very different way. The film follows David Wozniak, a man who owes a lot of money to violent thugs, is growing pot in his apartment, and just so happens to be the single worst employee of the Wozniak family business. After learning that his sort-of-not-really girlfriend is pregnant with his child and wants to raise it without him, things get much more complicated for David when he’s informed that, as a prolific sperm donor, he has fathered an additional 533 children. And 142 of them have banded together in an attempt to learn the identity of their biological father. What follows is a surprisingly complex exploration of the nature of fatherhood as David gets to know that group of 142 now-adult children and struggles to understand his role not only in their lives, but as a functioning member of society as well.
Although some people may not be able to see the subtle difference between Ken Scott’s approach to the material and that exhibited in any given conventional Hollywood correlative, there is indeed a difference. And that difference is in the honesty of the film’s depiction of David’s fears of fatherhood and in Scott’s reliance on the performers and subtext to really develop the characters, rather than having them outright voice their every thought and emotion. In this, Starbuck manages to be an incredibly sweet and touching picture without so much as bordering on contrived and manipulative. Of course, I’m sure not everyone would agree with this claim, especially since Starbuck has already been pilfered/remade by Hollywood under the title Delivery Man, which stars Vince Vaughan and is slated for a November release.
Starbuck is now available on DVD from Entertainment One and I seriously cannot recommend it enough. If you like movies and have feelings, you really can’t go wrong with Starbuck. Special features on the Entertainment One release include interviews with Scott and star Patrick Huard, bloopers, deleted scenes, and a music video.