Sat. Sep 21st, 2019

Toronto Review: ‘White Lie’ is a fresh take on the fake heroes of influencer culture

WHITE LIE (Courtesy of TIFF)

Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis create one of the year’s most provocative and intricate character study films of the year.

There’s a notion that the more one lies, the more they tend to believe their lies. Caught up in a constant web of false statements, cover-ups and unjustifiable excuses, one descends into an irredeemable state in which the lies become reality, dishonesty becomes a way of life and truth grows further and further by the day.

Directors Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis bring this concept to life in WHITE LIE, one of the year’s most original, surprising and at times terrifying films. More than a story that progresses in traditional narrative manner, the film is first and foremost a striking character study and does a marvelous job of going under the skin of a character who would stop at nothing to establish her lies as reality for herself and those around her.

The story is completely unique: Katie (Kacey Rohl) is a student who decides to fake cancer. She claims she needs money to be able to fund her chemo sessions and mounts a long online funding campaign to collect all the donations she can get. Having never been an actual cancer patient, Katie is at first met with sympathy from all her peers. But when trying to apply for additional funding from one of the local organizations dedicated to supporting students with cancer, she faces her first real obstacle: her medical records haven’t been submitted and without them, she can not have more funding. The stakes don’t stop there: if she fails to submit such records, will her peers continue to believe her?

In an unlikely turn of events, Katie decides to double down on her lies with utter conviction, to a point where Thomas and Lewis clearly show us she is simply not telling a lie – but living it. To say more will spoil the proceedings which take several unexpected turns, but more than seeking shock value, the film is remarkable for its several dialogue scenes which reveal a far more complex character than anticipated.

Why is Katie lying? Is it for the money, the social media fame or something more? In never answering this question early on, the directors leave us to grapple with one of the year’s most fascinating characters. In exchanges with her estranged father, faithful but naïve girlfriend and a skeptical lawyer, we gradually come to understand that Katie’s motives may not be as clear cut as we think. As she continues to lie, conceal and fake, it increasingly becomes evident that money, sympathy from others or online popularity may not be the most valuable prizes at stake for her – and that she may be looking for something far deeper: human connection. And when put in extremely threatening situations that could bring her web of lies upside down, she starts to fight – and falsely prove – her integrity for psychological motives that go far beyond maintain a paycheck.

It is in this intricate character study that the film does a sublime job of turning its lead character into a multi-dimensional liar looking for both tangible and intangible results that do not just stop at the need to pay rent or exist despite a financially troubled situation. The direction is not showy, and the film cleverly never delves into fireworks or exaggerated breakdown scenes, making for a deeply rewarding experience for viewers who observe and interpret – rather than demand clear-cut answers for questions that do not merit a black-and-white interpretation.

Anchored by one of the best, and most complex, performances of the year by Kacey Rohl, WHITE LIE is a completely fresh take on the fake heroes we look up to on social media today, and the so-called influencer culture in which likes, shares and even online donations are not completely based on merit or truth. It’s a stunning dramatic look at the fascinating meeting point between our virtual and offline worlds today – and the erosion of truth in lieu of artificial sympathy, financial gain and self actualization.

Verdict: A stunning character study anchored by one of the year’s most difficult performances to pull off, WHITE LIE deserves to be seen, analyzed and celebrated for the utterly original approach it brings to the screen.

Grade: A-

This review is from the 44th Toronto International Film Festival.

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