A sly comedic drama about quasi-bohemians struggling (emotionally, romantically and professionally) to find their way in the world, When Life Was Good is driven by a clear-eyed affection for its characters that is rare for any filmmaker, never mind one as young as Terry Miles. The film has a hazy, slightly stoned look, and is edited elliptically, as if the director, though obviously charmed by his principals’ numerous foibles, is aware that his characters talk a lot of crap, and thought eavesdropping a more appropriate, kinder introduction. It feels like a Cassavetes movie minus the rancour.
The film centres on Brooklyn (Kristine Cofsky), a would-be actress who has returned from studying abroad to celebrate her boyfriend Ben’s birthday; her long-time friend Faith (Keri Horton), an aspiring dancer who has put her career on hold to save her relationship; and budding screenwriter Casey (Casey Manderson), Faith’s boyfriend. Right from the start there are signs that something is amiss. Casey and Faith are goofy in love. Theirs is the kind of claustrophobic, exclusive relationship that is usually doomed when the outside world impinges. But it is Brooklyn who is the most divided and confused of the group. She slips into Ben’s apartment in an attempt to surprise him but, for reasons unknown even to her, becomes unhappy with what she sees and quickly slinks out, covering her tracks. She moves in with Faith and Casey, just as Faith’s mother, a truly determined stage mom, re-enters the picture.
As the characters struggle with conflicting emotions, unexpected intimacy and the demands of the real world, what emerges feels like an updated J.D. Salinger text. Miles adores his characters because of their naivete, their confusion and their refusal to put on a front merely to make their way in the world. And by the end, we feel the same way about them. Though the film is constantly, surprisingly funny, there is a forlorn, elegiac feel to the proceedings. When Life Was Good is a paean to inevitably lost innocence and signals the arrival of a distinctive new voice in Canadian cinema.