Once more into the video store Uncommonly ambitious teenage video-store clerk grows up, returns to source in 'I Like Movies'

When she was 16, Chandler Levack hand-delivered her resumé to a magical place that no longer exists: Blockbuster.

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When she was 16, Chandler Levack hand-delivered her resumé to a magical place that no longer exists: Blockbuster.

Levack, now 36, was a budding cinephile in Burlington, Ont., gravitating toward pop culture with an intensity that bordered on obsession, raised on Clueless, Can’t Hardly Wait, and Matt Groening’s landmark animated sitcom.

The Simpsons was almost like my early education in cinema,” says Levack, whose debut feature, the funny and charming I Like Movies, plays this week at the Dave Barber Cinematheque. “I remember going to see Citizen Kane my first year of film school, (and thinking), ‘I’ve already seen this movie. It’s the Rosebud episode with Mr. Burns.’”

Her resumé was accepted, and she started a year-long tenure at the video rental giant, which declared bankruptcy in 2010, a victim of the internet and a martyr of nostalgia.

<p>Tijana Martin / The Canadian Press</p>
                                <p>From behind the scenes to front and centre, former TIFF staffer Chandler Levack attended the Toronto fest’s première screening in September of her film I Like Movies.</p>

Tijana Martin / The Canadian Press

From behind the scenes to front and centre, former TIFF staffer Chandler Levack attended the Toronto fest’s première screening in September of her film I Like Movies.

The job came with some perks. “I got 10 free rentals a week, which was super sick,” Levack enthusiastically remembers. Coca-Cola products were available at a 15 per cent discount, and advance screening copies were available in the back room a week before they were put on the shelf.

Aside from her Blockbuster uniform, Levack frequently wore her dad’s old Converse sneakers — bright red and six sizes too big for her teenage feet. “I was literally walking around in these oversized clown shoes,” she says.

But beneath the awkwardness, Levack had an insatiable desire to understand and appreciate art: she liked movies, she liked music, and she wanted to turn that into a career.

She picked up Sex, Drugs and Cocoapuffs, the seminal collection of work by pop critic Chuck Klosterman, then of Spin Magazine fame. Levack wrote Klosterman a letter, and he wrote back. “I was probably way more ambitious than any teenager has any right to be,” she says. Her dream was to become a New York pop culture critic.

“I was probably way more ambitious than any teenager has any right to be.”–Chandler Levack

After quitting Blockbuster and graduating high school, Levack started at the University of Toronto, studying cinema and writing for the U of T paper, The Varsity, where she covered arts and culture. In 2006, she helped preview the slate of films due to show at TIFF, including a documentary on Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky and Away From Her, the eventual Oscar-nominated film by Sarah Polley, who Levack refers to in her article as a “Canadian indie film darling.”

“Sarah Polley has always been an influential player in the Canadian film scene, and this one sets the stage for her to save it,” Levack declared in The Varsity. “It’s a mature and clever piece of work, without all the usual Canuck self-consciousness.”

Soon, Levack was interning at Spin and earning bylines at revered outlets such as The Village Voice. At 21, she became staff writer for the influential Toronto alt paper Eye Weekly.

After a decade working as a freelancer, Levack was hired by TIFF as a staff writer, contributing articles on the film festival’s programming. She was able to interview filmmakers such as the Dardenne Brothers and Michael Haneke, along with a pair of her cinematic heroes, Nicole Holofcener and Agnes Varda.

<p>VHS Forever Inc. </p>
                                <p>Isaiah Lehtinen and Percy Hynes White in I Like Movies, which has been championed by Sarah Polley as ‘a beautiful delight.’</p>

VHS Forever Inc.

Isaiah Lehtinen and Percy Hynes White in I Like Movies, which has been championed by Sarah Polley as ‘a beautiful delight.’

At the same time, Levack began to explore her artistic impulses, and was hired to co-direct a music video for the Toronto punk band PUP. In both 2015 and 2016, Levack and Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux scored Juno nominations for music video of the year for their videos for PUP, which has become a beloved group with a devoted following.

“(Making music videos) was like a crash course in independent filmmaking,” says Levack, who with her co-director did everything from figuring out stunt choreography to making blood squibs in her bathtub.

Those same DIY principles were applied in Levack’s first short film, We Forgot to Break Up, which depicts the return of a former bandmate before the group — still together — takes the stage for an important gig. An adaptation of Kayt Burgess’s novel Heidegger Stairwell, the film screened at both TIFF and Austin’s South by Southwest Festival.

Using various grants, including $100,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, and her entire life savings, Levack then wrote and directed I Like Movies, a coming-of age-story about a pretentious and ambitious teenage cinephile named Lawrence Kweller (Isaiah Lehtinen), who in 2000s Burlington gets a job at a video rental shop called Sequels, working alongside a store clerk played by Alex Ateah, a Winnipeg-raised actor who grew up renting movies at Blockbuster and Jumbo Video.

Like Levack, Ateah loved video stores almost as much as the videos themselves.

“I loved the humming and hawing of being in a video store,” the Toronto-based Ateah says over email. “You bump into your friend or family member you went there with, you discuss some options, you say absolutely not to a couple options and maybe to some others, and then you meander some more.”

Several years after Levack previewed TIFF for The Varsity, I Like Movies was an official selection for the 2022 festival, alongside films by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin McDonagh and Polley, who has championed Levack’s film on social media as her own movie (Women Talking) is in contention for Oscars.

“This movie is such a beautiful delight. I’ve seen it three times,” Polley tweeted after Levack’s film was named the best picture of the year by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Polley also sent Levack “one of the nicest warmest emails” she has ever received.

“This movie is such a beautiful delight. I’ve seen it three times.”–Sarah Polley

“I might just get it as a lower-back tattoo,” Levack says, semi-seriously.

Other Canadian fans of the film include the award-winning directors Atom Egoyan and Jason Reitman, who screened the film at his house in L.A. Levack’s film has been shown to audiences in Newfoundland, Vancouver, Montreal, Santa Barbara, Taipei and Norway, with upcoming showings in Glasgow and Buenos Aires.

This week, it will screen in Winnipeg, where Levack will also instruct a screenwriting seminar at Cinematheque, and at Levack’s former home away from home: the SilverCity in Burlington.

“It’s where I saw Titanic and Mean Girls for the first time,” she says. “To me, it’s astounding that the same person who watched all those films would have their own movie play there. It kind of is super mind-blowing, right?”

ben.waldman@winnipegfreepress.com

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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