Victoria Day Recommendation: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Victoria Day approaches.  Our Canadian readers will have a holiday on Monday, 23 May.  Our American (and other non-Canadian) readers can skip work in solidarity with their Canadian brothers and sisters if they feel so inclined.   If you are relaxing for either legitimate or illegitimate reasons, feel free to watch a film about a real Canadian hero: Scott Pilgrim.

I came to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, directed by Edgar Wright, like I do so many movies, lazily watching HBO late at night after my children have finally fallen asleep.  (This is becoming problematic with a ten-year-old who wants to stay up later and a four and a six-year-old who do not yet grasp the concept that more hours of sunlight do not translate into later bed times.)  I often get movies I regret watching; for instance, I still can’t believe that I stayed up until 1:00 a.m. watching Predators (2010). I kept waiting for it to get better, and I then realized that I was watching Predators.

Occasionally, though, those forays into HBO will lead to some real gems, and Scott Pilgrim is one of them.  I have a vague recollection of the film’s release (last August) and recall favorable responses (A.O. Scott has a terrific review), but it slid out of my mind as a potential viewing opportunity as quickly as it slid down the box office charts.  I think that Scott Pilgrim had a difficult time making an impression because it is difficult to categorize.  It is not quite a teen flick, not quite a rom-com, and not quite a fantasy, so it does not readily possess those prepackaged selling points and marketing opportunities, like, say, Thor (2011).  However, I will take the wispy indie-rock boy Scott Pilgrim as my hero from a great Northern Kingdom over the Dr. Pepper selling son of Odin. (Nothing replaces the feeling of loss stemming from exile from Asgard like the 23 flavors found in Dr. Pepper.)

At the heart of Scott Pilgrim is Scott Pilgrim’s heart.  Played by Michael Cera, Scott is a 22-year-old bassist for a Toronto indie-rock band, Sex Bob-Omb.  Scott has dated, has had his heart-broken, and has broken the hearts of others.  He then dreams about and meets the proverbial coolest girl in the room, Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).  In an effort to keep their initial rocky relationship afloat, Scott must meet and defeat all seven of Ramona’s evil exes.  Scott must overcome his own feelings of inadequacy and selfishness to foster a loving relationship that possesses the possibility of growth and fulfillment.

Cera’s Pilgrim is the obvious if unconventional hero.  Indeed, he almost seems designed to challenge the conventional masculinity of modern movie heroes.  He is unemployed, has little if any money, and does not posses rock hard abdominals.  However, he is witty and playful and remains capable of learning from his missteps. His quest has nothing to do with vengeance, and everything to do with becoming a better person. 

This is where I believe that Scott Pilgrim surpasses so many other teen or young adult films centered around love, romance, and dating.  Whereas other films, particularly teen films, fail to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there is more to life than the immediate concerns of young adults’ emotional and material gratification, Scott Pilgrim has its pilgrims go on a journey in which they try to locate their place in larger world.  In so many teen films, the world is boring and knowable, but in the fantastical Toronto of Scott Pilgrim, the characters have to actually take the time to learn things about and respond ethically to each other and the world around them. 

While possessing characters in whom we are invested, the film never fails to be fun.  Adapted from the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World moves at an appropriately quick and energetic pace, much like the music it features.  The edits, effects, gestures, and dialogue all possess an energy that one would hope a movie based on a graphic novel and intentionally using graphic novel structures would.  Zack Snyder could learn a few things from Edgar Wright.  The playful special effects enhance the emotional depth of Scott Pilgrim. They add to the story and characters rather than over determine them.  Though I will not claim to have seen every graphic novel adaptation, Wright’s fun flick is my favorite so far.

As Pilgrim battles the seven evil exes, the film engages in commentary on the state of indie-rock. Sex Bob-Omb battles other bands in various clubs as Scott battles the exes, and throughout their battles the film exposes the snobbery and pseudo-intellectualism that often accompanies indie-rock and indie-rock fans, yet it also showcases the talent and sheer joy of music that can emanate from youthful ambition and enthusiasm.  Indeed, the reconciliation between these two poles is similar to the reconciliation needed between Scott and Ramona.  People have to see clearly why they love someone or something.  Loving someone or something for the wrong reasons hurts and causes damage.  Loving something or someone for the right reasons creates growth and fulfillment.

Scott not only fights for Ramona’s heart and the righteousness of indie-rock, he also fights for Canada.  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is self-conscious of its own setting and location, and many of the exes whom Scott must defeat have only derogatory comments and disdain for Toronto and Canada.  Scott refers to these as “crimes against humanity.”  Toronto might be a conventional location for filming, but it is an unconventional setting.  Scott even glibly remarks, “they shoot films in Toronto?”  Of course, his well delivered joke illustrates that Canada is often in disguise.  Toronto is disguised as New York, and Vancouver is often disguised as Seattle.  The director Wright makes effective use of space and city in his depiction of Toronto.  The interiors and exteriors are inviting. I have always felt that space and geography have played an important role in the role of Canadian fiction writers Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, and I feel that geography also plays a central role in the thematic and visual structures of Scott Pilgrim.

Earlier, I said that Scott Pilgrim was difficult to pin down and categorize, and from a marketing and executive position that is true.  Yet, on a more basic level, it is easy to pin down.  It is simply a really good film with good writing, good directing, and good acting: a rare commodity.  Maybe that is what makes it so difficult to recognize.

Go Canada.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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