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Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (2012)

by on 2012/07/12

“If you’ve half-forgotten the little town by the lake, and long since lost the way to it, you still sometimes dream in the dull quiet of the long evening that you will go back and see the boy you left behind you.”

* * * *

If you’re Canadian — and particularly if you’ve spent time in Orillia, Ontario — you’ve more than likely heard of Stephen Leacock (1869 – 1944).

The city of Orillia, which forms the basis for his fictional Mariposa, is the setting for his anthology, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Adapted (again) in 2012 in this CBC production, I feel a renewed sense of guilt and desire to open up that book.

You see, I’ve been carrying around the paperback for years. When I discovered I had misplaced it at some point, I promptly bought another. It continues to accompany me, as-yet unread. It’s joined me in the Caribbean, though I was distracted by a wedding. It’s followed me to Manhattan twice where it lost me to Katz’s Deli.

And recently — greatest irony of all — it sat for a week in a satchel, in a room, in a cottage . . . in Orillia.


You know what else was sitting in that satchel? A new iPad with this video ready to roll. Also sadly untouched. So, just returned, I’ve finally seen it, and was mightily impressed. Perhaps enough to read the book at last.

An ensemble cast in loosely connected episodes, Sunshine Sketches strikes a surprising dramedy tone. Less hilarious than wry, it meshes Leacock’s biography with elements from his stories. It focuses most specifically on young “Pip” Stephen (Smallville’s Owen Best) and the triangle connecting him, his unsavoury mentor Josh Smith (Blade’s Donal Logue), and his disapproving mother (Dead Ringers’ Jill Hennessy).

The cast is as astounding as extensive. Stacked with legends of Canadian culture, especially comedians, it features some for all-too-brief near-cameos, and others in unexpectedly “straight” roles. Nonetheless, it’s a treat to see them gathered together here. Along with Away from Her’s Gordon Pinsent as the narrating elder Leacock we find Sean Cullen (Corky and the Juice Pigs), Ron James, Peter Keleghan (Ginger Snaps), Geddy Lee (Rush), Patrick McKenna (Duct Tape Forever), Colin Mochrie (Death Comes to Town), Eric Peterson (Corner Gas), and Michael Therriault (The Englishman’s Boy).

Appropriate to the varied players is a terrific mix of humour. Highfalutin, lowbrow, and everything in between, we get a bit of the physical, lots of the observational, double entendres, and many suggestive puns. Even the crudity has class. The script and its execution show how bodily function jokes can be effective without resorting to being crass or gross.

Only one thing struck me as a good idea gone wrong, the use — or rather style — of Burton Cummings’ “I’m Scared” cover in a pivotal moment. Now, I love this man’s repertoire, both with the Guess Who and “up close and alone”. Furthermore, I’m not against anachronistic gags. However, what seems cool in theory didn’t work for me in practice. I wasn’t convinced by its “gospel choir” approach. Despite its notion of the singer very suddenly finding religion, the riverboat context suggested an early folk music tack.

(Here’s a random afterthought. How about a selection from Orillia’s own cherished troubadour, Gordon Lightfoot?)

Overall, almost everything found a satisfying balance. On one hand, you see a warming golden sepia toned effect. On the other, nearly MTV-edited pacing. The speed keeps things moving, distributed, and compelling, without venturing into Run Lola Run territory. Its turn-of-last-century period showcases vintage sets and locations, but doesn’t preclude occasional newer touches: visuals of the town “unfolding” and freeze frame navigations.

Traditionalists may cry heresy. Millennials may barely shrug. I’m somewhere in the middle, and I truly loved Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. It’s an audio-visual interpretation of a northern missing link, between the worlds of Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor. It makes me want to turn around and get back to Orillia . . . tomorrow, or today, or yesterday.

* * * *

Rated PG

90 minutes

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