Film Review of “Unless”
by Gloria Geller
We rarely have the opportunity to see movies that tell Canadian stories. One Canadian film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival 2016 is “Unless”, a movie based on the final novel by the Canadian writer Carol Shields, directed by Alan Gilsenan and staring Catherine Keener and Hannah Gross. My recall of the book “Unless” is that Reta Winter, a writer, tells the story of her daughter Nora who has left home and gone to Toronto and is inexplicably sitting at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor streets as a homeless person. The book which was published in 2003 in the same year that Shields died of breast cancer has been described as semi-autobiographical in that it is written from the perspective of a woman and a mother who is a writer.
In the film we are introduced to the family, mom, dad, and three adolescent daughters living a middle-class suburban/small town life in southern
Ontario (changed for the film from where Shields
and her family lived). The mother hears
that Nora, their daughter, is sitting on the corner of Winnipeg Bathurst
and Bloor streets, in front of Honest Ed’s well known shopping emporium, holding a sign
upon which she has written “Goodness”.
The story is really the mother’s story, not the daughter’s. We see how the parents and the two daughters,
but especially, the mother grapples with this situation. When the parents go to see their daughter for
the first time Nora, their traumatized daughter barely acknowledges them. Throughout this ordeal she does not
speak. The only clue provided is the
sign with the word “Goodness”. Something
has clearly happened to her to change her so drastically. Worried about her
being on the street all day and night, one night the parents follow her in their
car and see her enter a house. The
father goes to the door and finds out that Nora is staying in a woman’s
shelter. They arrange to visit the
shelter and all members of the family, except Nora, are given a tour of the
shelter. The staff member who leads the
tour responds, when asked about how Nora is, that she’s doing fine. She also says they don’t question the women
about their reasons for being homeless. Toronto
In the early days of Nora’s apparent “vigil”, members of the family join her and sit on the ground with her. She remains unresponsive throughout, not talking to her sisters or other friends. At one point Reta is so frustrated with her daughter she is determined to force her to come home. She tries to drag her to the car but Nora resists and Reta has to let go. In the meantime, Reta is struggling to understand why Nora has taken this stand. She talks to a number of people, especially an elderly writer in her 80s who has lived through much hardship in her life who offers suggestions and tries to convince Reta to allow her daughter to do what she must do.
Reta’s work life as an editor and writer continues as does that of the family. Idyllic scenes from their lovely home and neighbourhood contrast with the rough urbanity of the gritty street corner where Nora sits. Time passes and seasonal holidays are celebrated by the family. As the weather gets colder Nora sits covered in a blanket. At times we follow Nora as she walks among other homeless people, offering support to others, observing the underworld to which she now belongs, and we see her being accosted by a man who sexually abuses her.
At one point, her father, a doctor, notices what he believes to be a rash on her wrists and tells her he’ll bring her something for the rash, which he does. Nora wears large garden gloves and long sleeved clothing so it’s not possible to see more of her body. However, given that he is a doctor, we might expect that he would look more carefully at the red marks on her wrists.
One day Reta drives by Nora’s corner but Nora is gone. She calls her husband and asks him go to the city to look for her. Sometime later Reta receives a phone call telling her that Nora is in the hospital. From this point on the story behind the reason for Nora’s trauma unfolds.
I found the fact that I was watching the film at the Hot Docs (formerly Bloor) Cinema, which is located about a block and a half from the corner of
streets where the movie was filmed, added to my experience. I only had to walk out of the film and walk
over to the site of Honest Ed’s with its flashing lights and hokey signs (only
recently closed permanently to make way for new development), to contemplate
the reality of the homeless people who frequent these mean streets. Bathurst