TIFF: The Young Arsonists, and the healing power of teenage bonds

By James Mackin

Trauma is something that stays with us for a very long time, and it can be incredibly hard to recover from. Community can often be a great source of help during the recovery period. But what if you live in a small town where nothing ever seems to change?

The Young Arsonists is the first feature film from visual artist Sheila Pye. This Canadian film is about four teenage girls who live in a small town, and they are each struggling to recover from trauma. Nicole (played by Maddy Martin) is attempting to recover from the death of her older brother, and Veronica (played by Jenna Warren) is cutting herself to cope with parental abuse. Alongside their other friends (played by Sadie Rose and Madison Baines), the four start camping out in an abandoned house.

The Young Arsonists 2

Madion Baines, Jenna Warren, Sadie Rose and Maddy Martin in the Young Arsonists.

Nicole used to live in this house with her family, but they all left after her brother’s death. Surrounded by the memories of her earlier life, she begins to bond with these three young women and they attempt to forge a new path forward. They metaphorically set fire to their trauma to become new, stronger people.

The film has a depressing tone to start, mixed with very gothic imagery and setting. The characters frequently spend large portions of time wandering through the small town lost in their thoughts, looking at the tall grass. Frequently smoke is seen to showcase the character’s mental state as well, with numerous colours representing the girls. Blue smoke is often seen around Nicole, who takes a long time to even come to understand she is traumatized.

The Young Arsonists

Jenna Warren and Maddy Martin in the Young Arsonists.

The film also dabbles with surreal imagery, but what’s especially fascinating with these scenes is how they seem to occur more frequently when the teens become closer. The stranger the world appears to get, the more it makes sense to the four girls. It makes for an enthralling watch.

Pye’s history as a visual artist gives her a unique edge for the film’s visual flair. At many points when watching this, it feels like you’re watching a painting being made in real time, but you’re a part of the painting. You’re not seeing brush strokes, you’re seeing lives collide as a form of art.

The Young Arsonists is a rather intense film, but one you certainly don’t want to miss out on!

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