It’s a good thing Kevin Hartford’s not a religious guy: If he’d left it up to The Fates, Lemon Squeezy, his debut feature film that’s showing at FIN on Thursday, September 22 at 9:30pm, would never have been made. There’d be no story to tell—nothing to see—if, after he was denied funding for his project through Telefilm for a second year in a row, he hadn’t shrugged and decided to do the damn thing anyway: “I was like, ‘Well, I'm not just gonna keep applying for this program for the rest of my life. So I'm going to do the classic, Kevin Smith Clerks thing and just make my own film,’” Hartford says, speaking with The Coast by phone. And so, that’s what he did: Shooting a movie with basically no budget (except the credit card he set aside for food on set), filming in parcels of spare time on weekends for six months, calling on an impressive roster of friends who are actors to fill the cast.
Halfway through the effort, funding did appear, from a Canada Council grant. “I suddenly could pay everyone—except nobody ever changed their attitude towards when they showed up, because they were used to not getting paid,” adds a deadpan Hartford. But don’t mistake the only story about this flick being about how it was funded.
Yes, it’s a good thing Kevin Hartford’s not a religious guy: Because when you get down to the story of Lemon Squeezy, it’s got just a soupçon of heresy. “I always had this idea of a movie narrated by God…[but in the film] God is an absolute dick, he’s just kind of a douche-bro. I thought that’d be a really fun way to make that character, but also a narrator,” Hartford says in a tone so flat that, when he adds a second later that he loves dry, British-style delivery, it feels redundant. The film was inspired, in part, by Hartford’s “long-standing frustration as a homosexual dealing with depression and religion.”
The flick’s loosely held nucleus is a promposal gone wrong—but, as teenage Max turns to religion to numb his heartache, he just might have set a biblical apocalypse in motion. Along the way, the viewer encounters rapture opportunists, couples falling into bed and one character’s “Joan of Arc moment”—where she can hear douche-bro God but no one else can. Just as Hartford’s cast was an ever-expanding list of friends, the film itself—an ensemble comedy—feels like an examination of just how delightfully, dysfunctionally weird society’s connective tissue is. And while the plot might be intentionally soft-set, the film’s humour is both oddball and tight: “If you stop and think about it, really it doesn't make any sense. But just rolling with it allows me to have fun in a way that worrying about being taken seriously would not,” Hartford says.
“When I looked back to myself at 17, I was so incredibly stupid, and I didn't realize it until I was much older. Then I realized all teenagers are in the same boat: Where you're just sort of wildly grasping at whatever makes sense to you, and then you get these parents who are like ‘No, I understand, I was your age once too,’ but then you’re like ‘No, you don’t. This is the first time anyone's ever felt this in the history of time!’. …So I wanted someone kind of oblivious and gullible and stubborn and ridiculous as only a teenager can be to be the conduit into the story,” says Hartford. Inspired in part by the pandemic and the neuroses it unlocked in many of us, “I wanted to hold up a mirror, where we could all look into it and see how ridiculous we were all being,” the filmmaker adds. “It’s just a response to sitting in my house for a year being like: Are we all gonna die? and being like: How do I get some laughs outta that?”