Wharf Rats may not be the finest vessel but don’t abandon ship yet.
Written and directed by Jason Arsenault, Wharf Rats tells the story of Hughie Hackett (Robbie Carruthers), a lifelong slacker who lives in a coastal fishing community. Spending his nights caring for his traumatized mother and his days avoiding responsibility elsewhere, Hughie has little interest in the hard work of the fishing community. With his family’s fishing business under the care of his corrupt Uncle Angus, Hughie’s life is going nowhere. However, when he discovers his father’s will, he believes that he should be the rightful heir of the business. Then, when a stranger named Hackett (Daniel Lillford) literally stumbles out of the water, Hughie concocts a plan to steal back the family business and its potential value for sale.
Set against a small fishing community in the Maritimes, Wharf Rats is an exploration of toxic masculinity set against a changing world. Director Arsenault has developed a story with some solid potential as a coming-of-age tale of sorts for two men, each with different motivations. Having emerged from the waters alone and confused, Hackett is simply learning what it means to be a man in a world he does not understand. At the same time, Hughie’s reliance on his own faulty views on masculinity has left him trying to survive as one.
Unfortunately, while meant to be a comedy, the humour doesn’t always work. In other words, although Ratsabsolutely commits to its silliness, some over-the-top performances by Carruthers and Trainor keep the material from coming together. Having said this, the film’s strongest performance easily comes from Annie Briggs as the self-reliant fisherwoman, Crystal Dawn. Her confidence and simplicity helps buoy the film by providing the necessary counter-balance to the wild antics of Hughie and Hackett. As a result, Briggs is an absolutely delight and serves as the emotional bedrock of the film.
It’s worth noting that Rats definitely does have its strengths worth celebrating, especially as it undercuts stereotypes of toxic masculinity. As Hugh attempts to teach his friend what it means to be a man, he believes that carousing, drinking and cursing are the order of the day. (After all, a good fight makes one a man, right?) For Hughie, his understanding of ‘being a man’ seems stolen from a bygone era fueled by hyper-masculine stereotypes. However, his vision for manhood consistently falls short, often at the feet of the film’s female characters. Through characters such as Crystal Dawn and Hughie’s mother, Rats allows the woment to be the ones who exemplify hard work and honesty. With each female character, Rats highlights the strength of their character against the brutality and idiocy of the men. (Of course, the exception to this comes in the form of Hackett’s mother, yet even she is allowed her moment of truth.) There’s a purity and integrity to the women in this film that serves as its brightest star.
Furthermore, the film also shows the power of forgiveness against the damage of a lie. As Hughie constantly lies to his friends, he is one of many who play fast and loose with the truth. Focused only on himself, Hughie is willing to deceive anyone in his life as long as it benefits him in the end. Of course, this leaves a trail of wreckage in his wake and relationships are shattered. Even so, when forgiveness enters the picture, it covers over a multitude of sins. (“Really? I’ve done a lot of stuff,” he points out when offered grace.) This act of grace provides Hughie with the motivation to change his ways and chart a new path of truth and integrity in a corrupt world. No, he doesn’t deserve the hope he’s offered but he is still given the chance to change. In these moments, the film has some real power.
Where Rats is at its best though is as a love letter to the people of fishing communities who get up every day and work hard in order to support their families and themselves. Despite the fact that the humour is anchored in its setting, it never pokes fun at its people. In fact, the comedy stems primarily in the Hughie and Hackett’s inexperience and their inability to adapt. In this way, there’s an eye of respect embedded within Wharf Ratsthat highlights the challenges of maintaining a living in the midst of the ever-changing fishing industry.
Even though it’s not entirely sinking, Wharf Rats certainly does feel like it’s taking on water at times. Nevertheless, this may still be a ship worth saving. Anchored by a love for its culture and an interesting exploration of the toxicity of masculine power, there’s still a charm to these Rats that keeps the film afloat.
To hear our interview with director/co-producer Jason Arsenualt and co-producer Jenna MacMillan, click here.
Wharf Rats is available on VOD on Tuesday, February 22, 2022.