One Week…what would you do?
What would you do, if you had one day, one week, or one month to live? what live would you grab onto? what secret would you tell? what band would you see? what person would you declare your love to? what wish would you fulfill? what exotic locale would you fly to for coffee? what book would you write?
These are the questions posed by the film “One Week” (2008). Directed by Michael McGowan, this is a small, intimate film with a big echo. It is also a beautiful ode to Canada, from its lead Canadian actor Joshua Jackson, to a story centered around a Canadian young man, to the breathless Canadian landscapes that mark every frame, to a haunting score comprised of indie Canadian bands, this film is Canadian through and through.
The film opens with Ben, a young man in his 20s, sitting in a doctor’s office. We sense that it’s not a happy visit. The doctor fills the air with these words:”I’m afraid it’s not great news.” That, in moviespeak, always means that it’s not merely “not great” news, but “very bad” news. Ben is in denial, like so many who have sat in his chair before, and will after. He reacts, politely…being a Canadian and all. Ben asks about the prognosis, the treatment, all the necessary questions. Despite his polite composure, the answers are bleak and brutal, and he learns that he has an aggressive form of cancer, with very little time left.
How do you go on living in such a predictament? I’ve never been there and for that I’m thankful, but I imagine impending death puts many things in perspective. With life suddenly on the fast track one needs to downsize, prioritize, and make choices. Those things that we merely stand in order to be sensible, no longer seems sensible. The things that we bear with because we’re too lazy to search for an alternative, no longer seems bearable. The unrealistic things that we long for and put off for the future…well, they are still unrealistic, but we realize that we no longer have the luxury of time, and a distant future.
That unrealistic thing, for Ben, is adventure in the form of a vintage Norton motorcycle. “What’s the minimum?” He asks. “There is no minimum,” replies the doctor. We realize that Ben has been playing the minimum all his life – coasting, coasting along in the safe bubble of a comfortable existence. He is engaged to Sam (Liane Balaban), who everyone expects him to marry, and he can find no reason not to. She works as an actuary and is perfectly content with the amount of risk allotted in her life, and what will be their life. Ben is a school teacher and hates it. The students don’t care, likely because he can’t pretend to care enough, though he does try so awfully hard. Oh, and he is a writer with a failed first novel. Oh those writers, how they struggle against their wretched souls.
So, as you can imagine, and as we hope, Ben buys the motorcycle and embarks on a journey west, across the prairies and mountains, all the way to the sea. What started as a two day break turned into a week long adventure, and he comes back changed, thoughtful, and embraces life with a renewed hope. Um…yeah.
The general plot is a cliché and that is the fatal flaw of the film. But somehow, McGowan managed to cast the right guy as the lead and captured a journey so beautiful, with characters so lovable, that it thoroughly immersed me in the ride. Along the way we meet a ranch owner who has grown lonely and apart from her family, a hockey player having the Stanley cup (the real one) for a day, a pot-smoking cancer survivor at a roadside motel, and a travelling trekker at Banff. Ben crosses path with each of these lives spontaneously, unwittingly, briefly, and then they move on, like rail tracks that overlap and depart without ever announcing. That is life. Dealing with such a dark topic, McGowan attempts to delight through these little digressions and give us peeks into other lives, woven into the overarching theme that life is too short to waste.
Joshua Jackson is one of those guys born with an everyman appeal, yet at times his facial features project an aged wisdom. He portrays both youth and thoughtfulness convincingly, and that is important here. He is in almost every frame of the film and to be on the journey with him, we need to believe him. I did.
Please click play now:
We see Canada here like we never did in movies. It is grand, expansive, ever-changing, beautiful and peaceful. From the diverse streets of Toronto to mountains of Banff to the prairies in the middle to the pacific oceans by Vancouver, I’ve never seen a movie that covers so much of Canada. And it does so with such honesty and love. The winks to the ubiquitous Tim Hortons and Canadian Tires stores made me smile. There is no CGI effects. No grand symphony scores. It is shot, as told by McGowan on the DVD special features, by the smallest crew possible, each taking on multiple jobs, all crammed onto a bus driven across the nation. The colors are not enhanced, and the cinematography is not overwhelming, but there is an undeniable beauty, a humble beauty….so very fittingly Canadian.
The camera may be bare, but the frame is full.
Above all, “One Week” forces us to ask those hard questions that we put off to the side to make room for everyday life: Why are we here? Are we happy? Do you like the life that you are living? It’s a shame that we need something ugly, like cancer, to prompt us to focus on the beautiful things in our existence. Ben, like so many people, has put his dreams on hold after some bumps in the road. His life was incomplete – that novel he never wrote, the songs he never sang, the passion of true love that he never felt, and he thought it was ok to live without them. He had learned to do so – until this one week. While on the road little things started to rear their heads, like a conversation with a stranger who has been happily married for over 25 years, and a false accusation of foot odor by his fiancé. These little things started to build up like jigsaw pieces, and formed an image of his incomplete love and incomplete life, one he is seeing clearly for the very first time.
Sam: Did you take pictures?
Ben: A lifetime’s worth.
They say life is like a box of chocolates, that you never know what you’re going to get. To me, life is more like a series of snapshots. For most of us, we take them in happy moments and then carefully stow them away in cardboard boxes and plastic sheets. We look over them fondly from time to time, quenching our thirst with little sips of happiness, and then stowing them away again. At the end of our toiled life we look back at the faded photographs and wonder what happened? Why did we restrain our gulps to sips? Why did we wait all that time? What would have happened if…?
Well, why did we? How did we become used to the notion that happiness is something to be moderated, and not indulged? Since when did we get used to waiting? Waiting for graduation, for retirement, for later, for a future that is so far down the line that by the time we get there, we have completely lost the purpose that sets us on the journey to begin with?
Personally, I’m not willing to wait. I plaster photos over my walls, on fridges, and in between cracked paint. It may be messy, but I won’t have them fade in solitude. I’d rather die in a sea of happiness than to live an eternity in drought, teased by sips.
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
At the end of the film, on a beach by the Pacific ocean on Vancouver island, Ben takes a photo for a traveling European couple. The man tells him: “You live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.” “I know,” said Ben, the tiniest smile curling up the corner of his mouth.
So do I.