In the first scene of writer/director Trevor Anderson‘s feature debut, a new student arrives at school and refuses to sit on either the “girl” side or the “boy” side of a PE sex education class.
This is Robin (non-binary actor Vaughan Murrae) and it’s 1987 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Robin doesn’t just fit in because they’re new, but because no one – not the adults, nor the teens – know quite what to make of their lack of gender identifiers. The haircut is boyish, like Carter (Dominic Lippa)’s, the mean, but charismatic boy that Robin befriends (and crushes on). The clothes are gender neutral, as are Robin’s voice and mannerisms; even Robin’s father Daniel (Matthew Rankin) offers no clues by way of pronouns.
In any other film, Robin’s gender identity would be the central source of conflict. Anderson, along with co-writer Fish Griwkowsky, is clearly less interested in explaining Robin’s gender than using others’ uncertainty and fear as an entry point to explore an emotionally turbulent point of teen life.
Of course audiences will know that how Robin identifies doesn’t – or shouldn’t – matter, except to them. They’re just an average teen trying to survive a transition to a new school, build new relationships with fickle teens, and maybe figure themselves out in the process.
Slice of life feels is an apt descriptor for Before I Change My Mind considering the film’s very low-key narrative, personal dramatic stakes, and lack of closure. The film doesn’t traffic in ostentatious teen drama: conflict is wrung out of being partnered with a crush on a band trip to West Edmonton Mall, or whether Robin will shoplift to impress a potential friend. In fact, the biggest, loudest sequence – an utterly ridiculous original musical about Mary Magadalene that has the same energy as Martin Short’s gauche show in Get Over It – only employs the kids as window dressing.
Anderson and Griwkowsky have done careful work to ensure that none of the teens are one-dimensional caricatures. On the surface, Carter and his best friend, Shev (Rohan Khare) are typical gross teen boys who hoard porn magazines in their rocket ship treehouse and bully the only person of colour in their class, Tony (Jhztyn Contado). But glimpses of Carter’s home life, with an absent mother who absconded with a new boyfriend and a dismissive older sister, hint that his boastful persona is little more than a mask that hides a wounded little boy.
The same is true of Shev, although Before I Change My Mind doesn’t unpack the character with the same intent. Shev initially comes off as little more than a mindless follower, but there’s genuine hurt on his face when he realizes that he’s been replaced by Robin. Ironically that scene, which takes place at the treehouse, is visually replicated later in the film when fickle Carter swaps Robin out for his new crush, Izzy (Lacey Oake).
The struggle to fit in is at the core of the film. Initially all of these characters, including Jenn (Milana Bochinska) and Natalie (Kaitlyn Haugen), the pair of mean girls that hang out with Carter and Shev, seem like a band of friends who pick on outsiders. Over the course of the film, however, it becomes clear that everyone is afraid of standing out, of being different, or ending up in the crosshairs of the group. The temptation to target anyone who is different becomes an easy way to blend in and deflect attention.
Early on, this means picking on Robin. At two different points Carter demands of Robin “what are you?!” (though the first is a moment of outrage, while the second is more out of wonder). Robin eventually wins him over: first by riding a roller coaster as band buddies, then securing beers from a Madonna drag queen played by Joshua Carter.
While it’s not his story, Tony’s sporadic appearances offer a fascinating alternative portrait of an outsider. Tony never breaks into the group; he’s ostracized solely due to his race and no one ever attempts to get to know him (a dramatic makeover following a bullying incident suggests he’s much more complex and interesting than the others give him credit for).
In one of their savvier screenwriting decisions, Anderson and Griwkowsky position Robin and Tony as kindred spirits who *should* bond over their shared experiences being bullied, but instead Tony becomes a casualty of Robin’s desire to fit in, highlighting how Othered figures will turn on each other to appease the dominant majority.
Over time Jenn and Natalie begrudgingly accept Robin, in part because Izzy takes an interest in them. Savvy audiences will see the burgeoning romantic feelings forming between characters well in advance, but Before I Change My Mind refuses to focus exclusively on the dramatics of its love triangle; the traditional conventions of YA are merely present to support the film’s exploration of the turmoils of this particular age.
One of the film’s strengths is its reliance on leaving things unsaid. This includes the refusal to address, or even name, Robin’s non-binary status (of course, this wouldn’t have been a term in 1987). More than that, though, few of the teens say what they’re thinking or feeling. The lone exception is Izzy, whose ability to verbalize her compassion and kindness is what makes her a viable romantic interest.
The technical elements of Before I Change My Mind are also captivating. The teen actors offer naturalistic performances, which stands in stark relief to Anderson’s role as an over-the-top campy gay director mounting the College’s stage production.
Anderson regularly uses staticky camcorder footage as transitions, as well as Izzy’s Polaroid pictures to capture key moments, which gives the film a nostalgic vibe and helps to situate it in time. Musicality is also a huge component of the film, particularly in sequences that highlight how Robin and Carter, then Robin and Izzy, have grown closer. Finally, in the finale, the use of slow motion accentuates the discomfort and panic that accompanies one of the rare moments of violence in the film. This segues into Before I Change My Mind‘s final scene, which fails to offer audiences catharsis or closure…because that’s not how real life (or real-life stories) operate.
The Bottom Line: Before I Change My Mind is an exceptional coming of age film that is emotionally impactful without being saccharine or histrionic. The performances are quiet and the narrative is surprisingly gentle. This is an assured, rich, and powerful feature debut.
Before I Change My Mind is playing the festival circuit, including Inside/Out