English Canada’s preeminent practitioner of cinema verité, directed more than a few classic films. A Married Couple (1969) is a subtle observation of a broken marriage that ranks with the best work of Edward Albee or John Cassavetes. Who Has Seen the Wind? (1977), King’s first fiction film, is a moving look at Depression-era Saskatchewan. And Dying At Grace (2003) is a riveting look at five palliative care patients at Toronto’s Grace Health Centre.
But standing above them all is Warrendale. A characteristically intimate study of an experimental psychiatric centre for adolescents in Etobicoke, Ontario, Warrendale is both King’s most provocative film bearing a family resemblance to Frederick Wiseman’s devastating Titicut Follies (1967)—and one of his most sensitive and humane.
Run by American-born social worker John Brown, who went on to become an NDP MPP for the Beaches-Woodbine riding, Warrendale’s treatment was premised on the idea that psychiatric problems in adolescents stemmed from improper childhood development—in particular a lack of proper mothering and fathering in early childhood. The signature technique at Warrendale was a forcible return to that childhood state. When a child acted out, staff would put them in a “holding session,” physically restraining them while talking them through the issue. Sometimes it would take two or three staff members to hold the child, who could be—sometimes justifiably—quite violent. As Brown told the Toronto Star in 1965, “Our methods have to be unorthodox because orthodox treatments have failed with these children.”
Yet the film is not exactly an exposé. There is a lot of tenderness in Warrendale. Many of the patients have good relationships with each other and with staff. An early scene in which a girl refuses to get out of bed, giving rise to a holding session, does not come off as abusive so much as odd, especially when the girl seems to get along well with the staff members responsible. We see them in a variety of activities, playing games, watching hockey and eating dinner. Some of the children, deemed “unreachable,” are pretty charming, especially a little boy who reflexively tells everybody to “fuck off.” (Warrendale’s steady stream of swear words cost the film its CBC screening deal.) And when former patients were weird but not violent and have fond recollections of staff. Clearly, it’s a complex topic, and it’s to King’s credit that his film represents it in such a balanced way.
These skills are put to the ultimate test in the film’s climax. The staff breaks the news to the patients that the beloved chef, Dorothy, has died unexpectedly. The kids go ballistic, crying and shouting, and the staff, methodically at first but more and more frantically as the scene progresses, do holdings with almost all of them. King shoots much of it in extreme close-ups of struggling, tearful faces. The scene seems to go on forever. It’s unbearable and gripping at the same time.
A lesser director would have made Warrendale a sensationalist exposé. Only King could have made it a humanist masterpiece.