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SCARBOROUGH: 4 STARS. “the entire movie is infused with hope for the future.”

Adapted from a 2017 novel by Catherine Hernandez, which captured the author’s experiences of running a home daycare, “Scarborough,” now playing in theatres, is a raw yet inspirational look at life in the diverse, low-income community in east Toronto that gives the movie its name.

The film, directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, focusses on the marginalized kids at a neighborhood literacy center like Bing (Liam Diaz), a bright, chipper Filipino boy whose single mom works at a nail salon. His bestie, Sylvie (Mekiya Fox), looks out for him, but must also cope with unstable housing and a troubled brother. A third student, Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), struggles as she learns to read while addiction and racism hobbles her home life.

The centre is a safe space, a place for these kids to grow and learn. Outside the walls of the literacy centre the film explores themes of addiction, autism, child abuse and systemic negligence.

Shot in a documentary style, this coming-of-age story has a natural feel. Part of it comes from the use of first-time actors in the lead roles.

The stories and characters that fuel “Scarborough” are complex and while the handling of some of the big moments feels unwieldly by times, the film makes up for those lapses with an ambitious focus that includes many powerful moments.

A scene in which a mother is told her son is autistic and may never be able to live on his own amplifies the helplessness that can be felt by marginalized people as they try an navigate the health care system. It’s a potent sequence, nicely directed to share the character’s overwhelming sense of vulnerability. In moments like this, the movie shines.

It all sounds depressing, like an exercise in misery, but the movie is infused with hope. Hope for the kids, hope for the future. And, (NO SPOILERS HERE) Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” may never be used as effectively in any other movie as it is here.

Much of that uplift comes from social worker Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani), a warm figure of encouragement who genuinely feels for the children she looks after, often at the expense of her own well-being. Her empathetic character gives the film its beating heart.

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