Fantasia Festival-goers were fortunate to catch a very special advance screening of Abner Pastoll’s sleek sophomore feature film, A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND. The crime thriller is set to close the 20th anniversary of London’s Fright Fest. I was one of the lucky cinema-goers who was able to catch it here in Montreal before the rest of the world experiences it.
Set in a UK council estate, a young widow named Sarah (played by MAYAN MC’s Sarah Bolger) is picking up the pieces of her broken family after her husband is brutally murdered in their neighbourhood. The police have no answers and due to the nature of the council estate, they don’t seem bothered to excavate any. Purely based on where they live, the public opinion is that Sarah’s husband was a dealer killed in drug-related violence. Sarah is working hard to provide a semblance of home and normalcy for her two young children. They are struggling financially. Sarah is perpetually admonished by her mother who believes that her deceased son-in-law was a drug dealer and brought Sarah down a bad path. Despite the trauma, grief, and daily micro-aggressions, Sarah is working hard to maintain things for the sake of her family. Yet, she is so worn down from all that she is dealing with that she accepts and is resigned to how she is treated.
Simultaneously, we also see the atmosphere of her neighbourhood. Drug-related crime is very much a consistent presence in the community. A small-time local punk, Tito (NOTES ON A SCANDAL’s Andrew Simpson), breaks into Sarah’s home and asserts his domineering nature to coerce her into letting him use her home as a place to stash his drug inventory. Tito isn’t the kingpin – he’s just a curb-side dealer – but he’s unstable enough to be wary of. Sarah’s desire to protect her children and her now-shattered trust in the police lead her to agree. Sarah is isolated, abandoned by all, and now tied into a crime rooted in violence. It’s only so long until Sarah is pushed to taking matters into her own hands.
A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND is a pulsing bass-line of a ride with an ever-increasing tempo as Sarah undergoes a personal journey. The film is underscored by Bolger’s performance – simultaneously nuanced and wrenching. With simply a look Bolger conveys wells of emotion: pain, hopelessness, rage, numbness, anxiety, fear, and determination. The film truly is a vehement composition of her ability as an actor.
The audience reactions at Fantasia’s advance screening attest to the fact that A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND is a confident crowd-pleaser. When you consider the tumultuous journey to completion it is even more remarkable. Originally only given 20 days to shoot, Pastoll’s shooting timeline was cut to just 16 days. During the lively post-screening Q&A, an audience member asked Pastoll which scene was the hardest to shoot. “All of them,” Pastoll quipped with a laugh. One constant throughout the entire shoot was Bolger’s enthusiasm. Pastoll said that he’d sent the project to Bolger and she responded within 24 hours. They starting speaking over Skype shortly after. Pastoll was quick to praise Bolger and said that she was very involved in the filmmaking process.
At the heart of the film is Sarah’s personal journey. The film begins with all characters pushing, pulling, tugging, and moulding Sarah to their wants and needs. By the end, Sarah has reclaimed her sense of agency, self-efficacy, and has gained a new sense of confidence. We see her going from struggling to cope with the trauma and external forces, to reclaiming her agency and taking back her power to make decisions for herself. Sarah was never “weak”. She was simply in a vulnerable situation. Rather than offer support, the people around her tormented her. By the end, they either adapt or pay the price.
Though the film belongs to Bolger’s character, the entire supporting cast delivers memorable and engaging performances. Sarah’s children felt like real children (which is more uncommon than many would think). Bolger’s mother is played by respected Irish actress Jane Brennan (BROOKLYN). The bloodthirsty, hardline kingpin that controls the neighbourhood is played by Edward Hogg (WHITE LIGHTNIN) in a performance that is both relentless and darkly funny. The women in Sarah’s community – working in the shops, at the police station, and at the hospital – all provide notable turns, delivering high impact with their screen time. Two characters that must be mentioned: Jimmy (played by Sean Sloan), who appears to be the nice man working at the grocery store but is actually a daily harasser to Sarah. In a striking performance by Sloan, this character doesn’t necessarily commit the atrocities that the local gangs and drug dealers engage in, but his micro-aggressions sting with a venom that permeates the atmosphere. While watching the film, I physically recoiled at some of his lines – any woman in the audience can confirm that they have had someone like this that they had to deal with regularly. On the other side of the aggressor scale, we have Tito. We must discuss Tito.
The local punk who tests the patience of the drug kingpin and invades Sarah’s home is played by Andrew Simpson in a gritty and endlessly watchable performance. This film was a reunion for the actor and Pastoll, as Simpson starred in Pastoll’s earlier feature, ROAD GAMES. Simpson portrays this character in a manner so life-like, you honestly forget you are watching an actor and wonder if this unsavoury character simply walked onto the set and made himself at home. Tito veers between being forgivably unstable to viciously frightening. That’s precisely the core tension we feel with this character – one never knows if he can be trusted to uphold his countenance.
It is impossible to talk about the film without mentioning the music. The music feels like a wholly formed and separate entity. The music was created and composed by Matthew Pusti (a.k.a. Makeup And Vanity Set) in his feature film debut as a composer. During a Q&A after the film, Pastoll shared that he’s known Pusti for seven years. When Pastoll saw the script for GOOD WOMAN, he knew immediately that Pusti was the perfect person to compose the film. Pastoll closely collaborated with Pusti while editing the film. Pusti is now continuing to work on film scores, including up-coming big-budget projects. After watching the film, this comes as no surprise. (Hot Top: I’ve already followed him on Spotify. If you love retrowave and synths, I highly suggest that you follow him as well. You’re welcome.)
Pastoll shapes the telling of Sarah’s journey through the film’s tone and visuals. The beginning of the film is bright in the way of an overcast grey sky hanging over a dreary suburban landscape. This is meant to amplify the social realism of this story. The demonstration of Sarah as not only a woman grieving, but also living on the poverty line within a very specific socio-economic landscape. The story is rooted in this neighbourhood and the struggles of the people who live within it. During our Q&A, Pastoll put it best when he described it as “what a Ken Loach genre film might be like.” In contrast, the seedy underworld of the drug dealers and hustlers is shrouded in darkness, neon beams out in head-rush tones. Towards the end of the film, we see Sarah making her way through a labyrinthine, darkened bar, bathed in the glow of neon lights. We know intrinsically that she is entering a completely different world than her own, but she has also moved into a different place within herself. She has evolved.
A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND is a brooding and bloody crime thriller with sharp doses of dark humour and social commentary interspersed throughout.
To dive deeper into the film and the making-of, check out my Q&A with director Abner Pastoll here.