Thursday 21 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: I Don’t Know Who You Are

M. H. Murray's remarkably strong debut feature—which, having premiered at last year's Toronto IFF, screens tomorrow and Saturday as part of BFI Flare—is notable for the way in which it balances social issues with compelling drama, a combination Murray has some previous experience of, given that he wrote and directed all three seasons of Canadian web series Teenagers.  Murray's film is anchored by a brave, sympathetic performance from Mark Clennon, who here reunites with the director following the pair's earlier collaboration on the short Ghost, which first introduced Clennon's character Benjamin.  Benjamin's story is picked up in I Don't Know Who You Are, but whereas Ghost dealt with a man who—as per the title—was being ghosted after just one date, Murray's new film has a much weightier topic in its sights as its main character deals with both physical and emotional trauma.

Benjamin is a Toronto-based saxophonist who ekes out a living by teaching a handful of students and playing occasional gigs; this talented musician is recovering from a breakup with his partner in work and life, the slimy Oscar (Kevin A. Courtney), although the green shoots of a new relationship are beginning to emerge as Benjamin is now dating the caring, sensitive Malcolm (Anthony Diaz).  When one particular evening with Malcolm doesn't go quite as planned, Benjamin heads alone to a party where he proceeds to get very drunk, and as he staggers home he is sexually assaulted by a stranger (Michael Hogan).  Although he's reluctant to inform the police, Benjamin promptly seeks medical advice and takes an HIV test, which proves negative.  Benjamin is understandably relieved at the result, but as there's still a chance he might yet contract the virus, he is given both a starter pack and a full prescription for PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) medication.

There's a need to move fast with this course of HIV-preventative treatment, as the first 72 hours are when the tablets are at their most effective.  While Benjamin ingests the starter pack—which he soon vomits up—serious problems arise when he takes his script to a pharmacy.  As Benjamin hands over the ℞ and his health card, the pharmacist informs him that these drugs can be dispensed if they are charged to an insurance plan, which the musician doesn't have.  Alternatively, the tablets can be paid for, but as the chemist sets about filling the prescription, Benjamin is horrified to learn that the medication will cost him in excess of $900, a sum his hand-to-mouth existence simply doesn't allow for; thus, Benjamin is up against the clock as he frantically attempts to scratch together the funds to pay for the medicine.  To compound matters, it's the fin de semaine (as they say in Canada), so the government office that may have been able to offer some assistance is closed.

Just as the action in Ghost took place (and was filmed) in a single day, it seems fitting that exponential growth sees I Don't Know Who You Are unfold over the course of a weekend.  Murray proves especially adept at working with these temporal structures, and his latest effort instils a rising anxiety in the viewer as Benjamin struggles to raise the necessary cash.  Crucially, the film feels like an authentic Toronto story, with both T-Dot's streetcars and legendary music venue the Horseshoe Tavern featuring prominently; all too often, Ontario's magnificent capital has rather apologetically stood in for other cities—almost invariably New York—but here M. H. Murray expertly captures the essence of Canada's most populous city.  Such an unadorned presentation may well be down to budgetary constraints, but it all contributes to making Benjamin's urgent plight that bit more believable.  I Don't Know Who You Are is as impressive as it is sincere, and it ranks as one of Flare 2024's highlights.

Darren Arnold

Images: Festival Scope / BFI