Published Sep 09, 2019Niagara Falls occupies a particular space in the minds of Canadians, a site of natural wonder and urban decay. Director Albert Shin goes heavy on the latter in Clifton Hill, which sets the crumbling facades of the human condition amidst the similarly crumbling facades of Niagara Falls. Starting out as a full-blown caper, Clifton Hill gradually descends into a murky character study about the impacts of grief.
The film stars Sense8's Tuppence Middleton as Abby, a young woman who returns to her Niagara Falls hometown after the death of her mother. Ostensibly there to prevent the sale of her mom's beloved — albeit decrepit — motel, Abby's ulterior motive is to explore a purported kidnapping she witnessed as a child. The film questions her reliability and lucidity with a series of subtle clues and improbable coincidences, and Shin's strong directorial style strikes a balance between maintaining a level of uncertainty and advancing the film forward.
Clifton Hill explores the small-world dynamics of dying towns, and the lengths families will go to to maintain their legacies, no matter how local. While Middleton's mainstream, Hollywood-ready sensibility provides an accessible anchor, it's the supporting cast of townies that gives the film its comedic edge, including Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes as a pair of low-rent magicians and iconic filmmaker David Cronenberg as an eccentric podcaster, a hilarious reminder that he's as capable in front of the camera as he is behind it.
The film falters, however, when it actively works to undermine Abby's credibility — with no anchor to tether itself to, the film risks coming too far off the rails. Abby's links to reality — her straight-laced sister Laure (Hannah Gross) and Laure's affable husband Marcus (Noah Reid) — are too one-dimensional to provide a compelling balance to her increasingly manic detachment from the world around her.
But, like its namesake neighbourhood, there is an underlying charm beneath Clifton Hill that aims to keep things in enough working order to bring home the ending. While a perplexing watch, it eventually picks itself together for an engaging final act that drives forward logically and clearly without sacrificing its off-kilter sensibility.