In Joel Hopkins' awkwardly lovely Last Chance Harvey, Dustin Hoffman is Harvey Shine, a music composer who's on his last legs at work as he heads to England for his daughter Susan's (Liane Balaban) wedding. Upon arrival, he endures a series of injustices that make a mockery of that last name---little things like hotel blinds that won't open, wrinkled suits with security tags still stuck in them, awkward conversations with his ex (Kathy Baker) and her husband (James Brolin).
"Dustin and I had a long talk about the backstory," says Balaban, on the phone from a storm-paralyzed Toronto a week before Christmas. "We had this idea that the parents got divorced, and Harvey was absent and Harvey was embarrassed. He felt like an outcast. He says in the film that he always felt like a bit of a disappointment, which is his own neuroses, not something that's necessarily true. And that led him to become estranged from his family and his daughter."
His awkwardness and alienation emerges in short succession at a pre-wedding dinner organized by Susan's friends and mother. When Harvey suddenly tells Susan that he won't be staying for the reception, she hands aisle-walking rights over to her stepfather.
"'I'm hearing the same old story, he's not going to be able to stay for the whole wedding,'" Balaban says, theorizing her character's motivation. "She gives him one last chance, last chance Harvey, and he says he can't stay for the reception and she decides to break it to him then and there."
Back at the airport, Harvey meets Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), a similarly beaten-down single person, and over the remains of the day they forge a promising, fumbling romance, like Before Sunrise for the boomer set. The film is shot on location all over London, though Balaban's handful of scenes---the movie is essentially a two-hander---take place exclusively indoors.
"I did some fun things, I went to the National Portrait Gallery. I saw a Turner exhibit at the Tate," she says. "It was my first time in London since I was seven. I remember the punks in Piccadilly Circus and my father paid them to take my picture. And I bought my first cassette, Michael Jackson's Bad."
Toronto native Balaban, who has been living in Montreal since attending Concordia to study political science, was cast in her first film---and first lead---in her last year of high school, a role that's close to the hearts of many in these parts: Moonie Pottie in the Cape Breton coming-of-age drama New Waterford Girl, which also starred a then-unknown Tara Spencer-Nairn (Corner Gas).
"My mother's first husband is from New Waterford and my mother had honeymooned in New Waterford and showed me letters she had written her sister," Balaban says. "I thought it was incredibly beautiful and that there was something tragic about it that added to its beauty. I came from North York and felt alienated there, and realized how urban I was."
The film was a critical favourite, had a decent theatrical run in Canada, ran the festival gauntlet and, says Balaban, "changed the course of my future. I wanted to be a journalist. But for the first few years after university I kept working as an actor, because it had become a good livelihood for me. I came to the point where I realized I had to be 100-percent committed if I had to keep going. And I realized I loved acting and that I wanted to do this for years to come."
Her credits span more than two dozen films and series, including Saint Jude, World Traveler, Seven Times Lucky and 2008 festival highlight One Week, with a half-a-dozen projects in pre- or post-production. But for now, as she gets word that her flight home has been cancelled until the following day, she's focused on Last Chance Harvey.
"For me it's about how it's never too late to have the life that you want," she says, slowly and deliberately. "It's never too late to do the things that you want: fall in love, make things right, forgive and be forgiven."
Last Chance Harvey opens Friday, January 16. See Movie Times for screening info.