ANNE AT 13,0000 FT (MIFF 2020) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
As the title to Canadian filmmaker Kazik Radwanski’s third feature film suggests, Anne at 13,000 Ft is about learning how to fly. Or at least, trying to learn how to fly. The film opens with its eponymous Anne – played in a career-making performance by Deragh Campbell – skydiving at her best friend Sarah’s bachelorette party. It’s an experience that captivates Anne as she returns to it throughout the film, her skydiving lessons punctuating the personal journey of which the film primarily consists.
The titular emphasis on Anne’s untethering from the ground and the sense of freedom and control she attains through her newfound hobby is more than mere symbolic window dressing; there’s an intrinsic sense of distance, of dislocation, and of attempting to master seemingly unconquerable forces that permeates who Anne is and her determined struggle to get her life on track. One of the film’s great accomplishments – of which there are many, illustrated perhaps nowhere more formally than the many awards the movie has already won – is how we are never quite given the concrete data to diagnose precisely what it is that makes life so challenging for Anne. While in many ways she appears to be clearly neurodivergent, Radwanski makes a conscious decision not to formally diagnose Anne from within the diegesis of the film itself; Anne’s challenges are hers and hers alone, there is never any attempt to reduce her as a patronising cipher in a broader ‘social issues’ drama.
In many ways, this fundamental respect that Radwanski has for Anne that so determinedly rejects any kind of reductionist ‘explanation’ model pits the film in curious relation to his previous feature, the extraordinary 2015 movie How Heavy This Hammer. While this earlier film focused on a videogame-addicted faildad who spirals regressively into a state of increasing immaturity, Anne – while her story, personality and challenges are very different – is still a far from a typical protagonist. Radwanski’s compassion and patience with these struggling characters and the sheer gift of time he grants himself to just sit with them result in an audience experience that pits us in a constant tug of war between empathy and bewilderment. It is the tension between these two responses that largely frame the experience of watching Radwanski’s films, and in the case of Anne, make it a lump-in-the-throat emotional ride where we at times can’t bear to watch, but also care enough for her enough to not turn away.
Much of the narrative underpinnings of Anne at 13,000 Ft are either implied or simply unspoken – we are encouraged to fill in the gaps, but we get no moment of satisfaction where our suspicions are concretely confirmed or invalidated. When we meet her, Anne has been teaching at a childcare center for three years – where she met Sarah (Dorothea Paas) – and while she loves her young charges, she struggles with many of her other colleagues in the day-to-day power plays and microaggressions that dominate working life. Anne, we gather, has just moved out of her mother’s home into her own apartment as she tries to build a new life as an independent woman; she begins dating a man she meets at Sarah’s wedding, she undertakes small DIY tasks around her new home in order to make it an appropriate space to invite visitors one day, and, perhaps most overtly, she goes to great lengths to push her clearly concerned mother away, despite at times needing her support very urgently.
Anne is both like us and not like us. She makes mistakes, she has bad days, she has good days. But just as we can recognize familiar elements to Anne, we simultaneously must balance them with things that bewilder us as much as they do those in her orbit within the film: when she behaves badly or makes errors in judgement, she runs to the excuse that it was ‘just a joke’ when clearly the scenario (and the consequences) are far from humorous. She lashes out in ways that we identify as adhering to her own logic, but do not make sense to us or to those around her, who are so desperate to support her. Where this leads Anne Radwanski ultimately has little patience to spell out in explicit terms; the information is all there and we can make a good guess, but this is no overwrought melodrama wrapped in a big tidy bow on any level.
Like How Heavy This Hammer, Anne at 13,000 Ft charts dysfunction through Radwanski’s determined vision to elevate the sophistication of the discourse from a simple failure/success binary into something far more intellectually probing and emotionally profound. Likewise, the film cannot be assessed on a pleasant/unpleasant binary either; Anne at 13,000 Ft has an enormous amount to offer its audience, but what it has to say is not necessarily easy to hear.