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Funny and gut-wrenching: New Canadian dramedy I Used to be Funny is a must-see | CBC News

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A controversial pitch for movie lovers this weekend: Go see a small-budget Canadian indie instead of the big-budget fourth sequel of Bad Boys. Canadian filmmaker Ally Pankiw’s debut feature film I Used to be Funny hits theatres this weekend. 

After Pankiw directed a buzzy 2023 episode of Black Mirror starring Annie Murphy and Salma Hayek, the big question became, “What is she going to do next?”

Turns out it’s I Used to be Funny, a movie she started writing in 2013. The proudly Canadian production was shot and set in Toronto. 

The new dramedy, starring indie darling and overall fantastic actress Rachel Sennott (Bodies Bodies Bodies, Shiva Baby), is a triumph of a debut, despite being a tough sell on paper.

The film is about overcoming trauma, a plot that can make audiences feel like they “should” watch a film, rather than one they race to see. But thoughtful and innovative story-telling, editing and tour-de-force performances show how a film like this can be funny, smart and compelling.

I Used to Be Funny centres on Sam, a Toronto comedian who has lost everything.

When we meet Sam, she’s no longer doing standup, paying rent or leaving the house. The film jumps between a time when Sam was doing much better — when she was funny and employed, a bubbly, sharply dressed woman with clean hair — and when she isn’t that interested in getting out of bed. 

At a tight hour and 45 minutes, the film moves quickly, and is buoyed by so many laughs — including some hilarious roommate scenes. 

Lines like “I feel like his hair has gotten more incel-y,” and “She’s not dying, she’s still bullying us on Twitter” land with great effect — and the back-and-forth between Sam and her best friend Paige (played with a casual ease by Canadian actress Sabrina Jalees) shows how much the two care for each other.  

What works well here is there aren’t any grand speeches or call-to-action moments. Nor does Paige treat Sam with kid gloves. She doesn’t push, but she does make jokes, and reminds Sam about what she used to love about her life.

Those interactions are punctuated by short standup scenes at Toronto’s Comedy Bar, which plays itself in the film. 

Standup comedy sparkles on screen

Standup comedy has been perennially difficult for television and film to get right, and many have written about why that is.

In that regard, I Used to be Funny is unusual — its fictional standup is genuinely funny. 

Perhaps that’s because Sennott is such a strong actress and standup comic in real life, or because her sense of humour blends so effortlessly with Pankiw’s. 

The director says she lifted dialogue straight from her own interactions in the 2010s, and from her family’s own experiences with trauma and PTSD.

The movie gets so much right about trauma — from being too tired to dress yourself to feeling like you’re failing your friends and being unsure about how to move forward. Many modern films use trauma as a character trait that presents simply as despondent or disaffected. But that’s not as true to life as what Pankiw has created in this film.

I Used to be Funny feels real, as opposed to overwrought. And Pankiw is good at blending those honest and authentic-feeling interactions with a fast-paced narrative.  

Her writing is sharp, witty and decisive, harkening to the early days of Lena Dunham, who wrote young women in Girls as they actually talked and acted in private, instead of how male writers thought they might. 

Toronto’s Comedy Bar plays itself in I Used to be Funny, which is a proudly Canadian-set and -shot film. (levelFILM)

Rachel Sennott delivers a career best

The cast in this movie works well — Jason Jones (whom audiences will know from The Daily Show) plays a pitch-perfect creep, and Caleb Hearon lands every joke and aside.

One quibble is that Olga Petsa, who plays the film’s youngest character, looks a lot older than 12 years old. When she plays 14, later in the film, it makes more sense.

Sennott as Sam is an inarguable standout. She simply has it. Whether she’s crumpled over a notebook trying to write jokes or telling someone to leave her alone with about the force of a small bird, her character is always compelling.

It’s a career-best performance that digs deep into the world of a woman who just wants to be funny — and happy — again.

Sennott has had a string of successes with female-friendship films lately, including Bottoms (2023) and Shiva Baby (2021), both directed by another talented Canadian: Emma Seligman. 

What caused Sam’s complete breakdown isn’t made clear until later in the film, but many women watching will likely have a good guess early on. 

Pankiw uses moody blue tones and increasingly frightening snippets to foster a sinking feeling as the audience moves closer to the incident in time and space.

She said she wasn’t trying to create a mystery within the movie, instead looking at the impact of trauma on women, their art and their community.

Filmmaker Ally Pankiw is seen posing on a stool wearing a t-shirt and blazer. She has long brown hair.
Canadian filmmaker Ally Pankiw’s debut feature film I Used to Be Funny hits theatres this weekend. (Taylor James/Associated Press)

Trauma stories versus procedurals

As Pankiw has pointed out, films and TV shows about trauma often play out like a police procedural, with interrogation scenes, hospital visits and a focus on justice.

Pankiw skips that in favour of following Sam’s journey to becoming a person again: eating crappy spaghetti with her roommates, declining invitations to come back to work or see friends, and scrolling social media endlessly for signs that people hate her.

And though all those scenes contain sadness, Pankiw and Sennott mine the humour in them.

It makes the movie easy to watch, almost breezy, until it arrives at its gut-wrenching and very effective conclusion. 

The women shaping Canadian cinema

It’s hard to overstate the success of this low-budget, proudly Canadian, unapologetically Toronto-set movie. In addition to Toronto’s Comedy Bar, the CN Tower also features prominently. 

The film could’ve easily been set in a nondescript U.S. city, and it would’ve been an easier sell to American distributors.

But like its plot, the film doesn’t shy away from the riskier choice. 

In that way and many others, I Used to be Funny is a clear testament to how great Canadian indie cinema can be. 

This film, along with a few other recent successes (Sophie Dupuis’s Solo, and Seligman’s aforementioned Shiva Baby), sets a high bar not only for accomplished Canadian filmmakers, but for all indies.

I Used to Be Funny is playing in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Waterloo, Ont., and Sudbury, Ont., this week, with showings expanding to Ottawa and Kingston, Ont., next week.

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