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Wrestle mania 

Opening this Friday, the Atlantic Canadian feature Beat Down follows a big dreaming 18-year-old woman into the theatrical world of professional wrestling.

click to enlarge Wrestling ring as metaphor for life in Beat Down.
  • Wrestling ring as metaphor for life in Beat Down.

Eighteen-year-old Fran Whiteway (Republic of Doyle's Marthe Bernard) is a pint-sized wrestling pitbull. She yearns to become a pro but her overprotective father, Whitey (Trailer Park Boys' Robb Wells), is dead set against it.

Discovering her father's wrestling ban originated with her parents' prior wrestling careers tearing them apart (oh, and that her mother's not dead, as she had been told), Fran runs off and joins a pro wrestling tour managed by Whitey's ex-partner Jimmy "Dark Thunder" Langdon (Tony Nappo).

"I loved the theatre of it," says Beat Down's co-writer Iain MacLeod of professional wrestling. He was drawn into the rural Nova Scotia wrestling scene several years ago. He teamed up with longtime friend Deanne Foley, who had a father-daughter plot percolating in her mind, to write the film.

"It just sounded like this amazing, colourful, theatrical and hilarious world," says Foley, who also directed the movie.

Determined to make the film's wrestling so authentic "the audience could almost experience it," Foley threw herself into research. She watched documentaries and old footage, focusing on the '80s, when wrestling was at its peak of popularity, and Whitey and Langdon would have been in their "glory days." She shot the wrestling scenes in Newfoundland arenas, with local fans as extras.

The result---intimate staging, heavy shadows, a gritty, working-class feel---achieves Foley's goal of making the film both more relatable for local diehard wrestling fans and more approachable for non-fans.

Then again, the movie isn't really about wrestling; the ring merely acts a metaphor for life, says Foley: "It's a story of the struggle to follow one's dreams, and it was really important to me that the lesson is dreams are worth pursuing even if at the risk of failure."

It's a sentiment Foley can appreciate. After moving to Halifax in 1998 to work in film, she found herself doing seemingly everything but features. She established herself with several award-winning shorts (Trombone Trouble, This Boy) and now, with Beat Down, has finally gotten her first stab at a feature film.

"It's very hard to make movies in Canada, particularly in Atlantic Canada, so it's great when you actually finish one and it has a chance to connect with an audience," says MacLeod, who is also making his silver screen debut.

The pace of the film speaks to its writers' experience in producing shorter pieces: it gets right into the story, switches scenes often and has a rapid narrative arc. The speed doesn't allow for much character development---Fran seems to alternate only between the two moods of "angry with dad" and "elated with wrestling"---but it does allow the actors to shine in brief bursts.

Beirne and Wells make for an unlikely but comically wonderful match as the two set off to wrangle Fran out of the ring and back into St. John's working class normality; Nappo is brilliant as an increasingly self-centred, get-ahead-at-any-cost Jimmy and Janet Kidder plays rough-around-the-edges repenting fox as Fran's mother, Roxy LaRue.

"If there's one thing I've learned about life is it's shitty," Roxy tells Fran in one of her attempts at maternal guidance. "But you have to keep going. You'll get hurt, you'll get knocked down, but then you have to get up."

It's an observation akin to one MacLeod made of real wrestlers: they make little money, hold day jobs and wrestle on weekends, get physically ransacked, but continue to pursue their passion. Dreams, then, like wrestling, like filmmaking, hurt a little, but are worth it if you love what you do.



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