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Before it ultimately became a sleeper hit and scored a couple of Academy Award nominations, Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her” was just one of the many films showcased in the Museum of Modern Art’s Canadian Front series last year. The annual event takes the pulse of cinematic offerings from our northern neighbor by presenting a mix of festival favorites and commercial hits alike, including the works of distinguished filmmakers such as Guy Maddin, Bruce McDonald, Thom Fitzgerald, and Robert Lepage.
The 2008 edition, which got under way Thursday, has an equally noteworthy lineup: Ellen Page — Canada’s It Girl du jour — stars in “The Tracey Fragments” by Mr. McDonald, who directed the cult film “Hard Core Logo.” There’s also “Days of Darkness” from Denys Arcand, the Oscar-winning helmer of “The Barbarian Invasions.” But beyond the obvious hot tickets, this year’s selection also reflects the cultural and social crossroads at which Canada currently stands.
Telefilm Canada, which subsidizes homegrown productions, has recently shifted its policy to bankroll projects with commercial appeal rather than artier fare. As a result, nothing in the current crop of Canuck films remotely resembles the idiosyncratic national cinema pioneered by such titans as David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan.
Indeed, this year’s Canadian Front lineup reeks of American influences. It’s no surprise, given that indigenous entertainment, such as “Kids in the Hall” and “Red Green,” has gradually vanished from the country’s television landscape to make room for cultural frauds such as “Canadian Idol” and “Trailer Park Boys.” Some of the films come off as similarly inauthentic: “Days of Darkness,” about a dowdy civil servant using elaborate daydreams to cope with his midlife crisis, appears to be the Québécois answer to “American Beauty.” And “Poor Boy’s Game,” the latest from Clément Virgo, about an ex-con making amends for a hate crime he committed, is reminiscent of “American History X.”
Both films struggle to articulate Canada’s racial tension on American terms. Characters drop the N-word flippantly, suggesting Canadians’ trouble with the stigma of this derogatory term without the context of slavery, segregation, and the American Civil War. It’s perplexing that the filmmakers can’t see the subject outside the black-and-white binary, and completely fail to acknowledge Canada’s omnipresent racial discord in recent years, which has been exacerbated by the influx of Asian immigrants.
Perhaps appropriately, while the established filmmakers in MoMA’s survey mostly disappoint, the up-and-comers make a strong impression by tackling social issues that have plagued Canada of late. Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s feature debut, “Le Ring,” offers an undaunted look at poverty, juvenile delinquency, drugs, prostitution, and child abandonment. With a murder mystery as its backdrop, Bernard Émond’s “Summit Circle” addresses the devastating effects of mergers, layoffs, and foreclosures. While “Days of Darkness” treats the Canadian government’s red tape as a running in-joke, “Le Ring” and “Summit Circle” give viewers a reality check on the ways the country’s bloated, inefficient big government lets its citizens down.
Through March 20 (11 W. 53rd St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-708-9400).