Producer: Jennifer Weiss Director: Molly McGlynn Screenplay: Molly McGlynn Cast: Maddie Ziegler, Emily Hampshire, Djouliet Amara, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Ki Griffin, Dale Whibley, Michael Therriault, Christian Rose and Dennis Andres Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
One of the best decisions Canadian writer-director Molly McGlynn made with regard to her second feature, a semi-autobiographical high-school dramedy, came in post-production. When it premiered at South by Southwest last year, the movie was titled “Bloody Hell,” which certainly would have led viewers to expect something quite different. Its replacement has a double meaning that’s really too clever to be entirely satisfactory, but it’s a definite improvement.
The first aspect of “Fitting In” that applies to sixteen-year old Lindy (Maddie Ziegler) is the desire to be part of the regular crowd on campus. Along with her long-time best friend Vivian (Djouliet Amara), she’s a star on the track team, chosen by their coach (Dennis Andres) for an important slot on the squad. And she has a handsome boyfriend in Adam (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), with whom she’s planning to have her first sexual experience—apart from those of a solitary sort. Her relationship with her mother Rita (Emily Hampshire) has an occasional rough spot, of course, but that’s hardly atypical.
A decision to seek birth control in preparation for a night with Adam takes her to a gynecologist (Michael Therriault) for a consultation, since she’s not yet had her first period. His examination reveals something startling: Lindy has a rare condition, MRKH Syndrome, a congenital abnormality resulting in a missing uterus and cervix and a partial vaginal canal. Not only will she never be able to have children, but she will be able to have sex only through stretching exercises with vaginal dilators or surgical intervention.
The news is devastating to the girl, who feels unable to share the truth about her condition with her friends. That alters her easygoing relationship with Vivian and her more serious one with Adam; neither can understand her change of attitude, which they can only take to read as a decision to distance herself from them. It also affects her bond with Rita, who has troubles of her own—professionally, in her job as a therapist, and personally, as she still bears feelings of loss from a mastectomy, as well as the pain caused by her husband’s abandonment when Lindy was just a toddler. Lindy is increasingly estranged from all those who have been closest to her.
She tries to work with the dilators (the other allusion to fitting in, of course), which offer no satisfaction, and considers the surgical option, though that’s expensive. She tries to test matters for herself, inducing Chad (Dale Whibley), a naïve classmate who works at a fast-food joint, to experiment with her to ascertain how pleasurable the limited action she can offer might be for a partner. She also briefly attends a meeting of the few students who identify as LGBTQ, where she meets Jax (Ki Griffin), unabashedly intersex, who reveals the experiences she went through in her younger years.
Lindy develops a friendship with Jax, leading to a kiss at a party where she rather cruelly rejects Chad and drunkenly reveals her secret to an equally wasted classmate (Christian Rose). He in turn unthinkingly spreads the news to everybody on campus, while leads to the inevitable “This is who I am!” public declaration to the school that brings Lindy a sense of triumphant closure.
None of this sounds particularly funny, and in fact it’s not; but McGlynn manages to add humorous notes to what is essentially serious material along the way, so that it’s not merely melodramatic either. And the characters are presented in likable terms; the young ones may occasionally act in insensitive ways, but it’s not out of malice—even the kid who lets Lindy’s secret out of the bag does so thoughtlessly. (Indeed, it’s the obtuse gynecologist who comes off worst; he should really know better how to deliver a pretty traumatic diagnosis.) The actors who play them—Amara, Woon-A-Tai, Griffin, Whibley—are all likable, too. And Ziegler delivers a powerhouse lead turn. Lindy, frankly, is not always the most sympathetic of people; in her anger over her condition and fear it might get out, she can be borderline cruel, as with poor Chad (who doesn’t really get the apology he deserves). But Ziegler makes you feel for her even when she’s being mean.
That includes her often unfeeling treatment of Rita, whom Hampshire embodies with a maternal desperation to help that’s almost palpable. Some of the verbal battles between mother and daughter tend to be a mite overextended, but Hampshire is strong enough to pull them off.
The film, shot by Nina Djacic in Sudbury, Ontario, and edited by Maureen Grant, will win no awards for visual beauty or perfect pacing, but it looks and moves well enough, and the score by Casey Manierka-Quaile avoids genre cliché, though some of the pop music needle drops are pretty obvious.
In all, “Fitting In” is a teen tale that embeds a familiar message about self-acceptance in an unusual narrative about physical identity that has a potent topical thrust. The fact that it can also make you laugh is an added bonus.