FOR his debut documentary feature, director Shawney Cohen did not have venture far to find subjects.
He just went home.
Shawney's dad Roger is a strip-club owner who tips the scales at around 400 pounds. His mom, Brenda, weighs a fragile 85 pounds, apparently the result of a dangerous, long-term anorexic lifestyle.
Their place of business, the titular Manor -- "Canada's premier gentlemen's club" -- is a strip joint that has been very good for the Cohen family, at least financially. They live in a large, impressive home. At any given mealtime, there is lots of food on the table. Dad consumes as if he has been starved in an attic. Brenda ignores it with agonizing self-denial.
This reverse-Jack Spratt dynamic, Shawney suggests, are dues exacted by the exploitative nature of the Cohen family business. He doesn't get too righteous about it: Shawney himself puts in his days managing the joint, along with his more enthusiastic younger brother, Sammy.
Shawney is apparently more aware that his upbringing has been strange. He tells a story about how he wanted hockey equipment for his bar mitzvah and instead received a lap dance, courtesy of dear old dad.
If the Cohens are a mildly dysfunctional lot, the business itself attracts its share of troubled individuals, including Bobby, an ex-con (who earns Roger's patriarchal wrath for selling heroin on the premises). There is Sue, a former stripper who ostensibly manages the hotel adjoining The Manor, but wrestles demons of her own, if an apparent suicide attempt is any indication.
The opening film of this year's Hot Docs festival in Toronto, The Manor has a certain crowd-pleasing quality that combines family melodrama with tawdry sleaze, nicely encapsulated in a scene where Shawney brings his new artist girlfriend to meet dad in his office and their conversation is interrupted by a naked, drunk stripper.
If this documentary had been made 20 years ago, it might have come off as an edgy piece of cinema v©rit©. But it carries a strong whiff of reality-TV contrivance. In the movie's brief 77-minute running time, Shawney shies away from exposing the sleazier side of the business for scenes that are clearly staged, as when Shawney and Sammy discuss their parents' troubled relationship at a driving range.
It's fascinating to watch. But one is not entirely convinced of Shawney's intentions.
The director would have us believe this movie is an exercise in atonement. But one has the niggling feeling he may just making his own imprint on the exploitation business.