Niagara Motel is a relatively obscure Canadian film (2005), and an entirely different relatively obscure Canadian novel (2016). They have little in common, save for their country of origin, relative obscurity, overt indie quirkiness, and the fact that neither spends much time in their titular setting.
The film has its origins in Suburban Motel, a series of plays penned by George F. Walker. The film interweaves the storylines from these. Ostensibly, we're in Niagara Falls, Canada. We see footage of the landmark and a few scenes shot around town, including Clifton Hill. The overwhelming majority of the film takes place at a motel and restaurant in reality situated in the small town of Steinbach, Manitoba. The rest of the principal shooting took place in Winnipeg. This is fine, since Niagara Falls as a place really does not influence the stories in any meaningful way.
And so we see the doings of a criminal couple with addiction issues who seek to regain custody of their child, a motel caretaker with a tragic past who tries to forget by drinking, a couple with a troubled marriage who hope to change their fortunes, a pregnant waitress with too much male attention who considers working for the porn industry, a prostitute with a successful business who forms a friendship with a middle-class woman, and other characters. Acting is generally fairly good. Caroline Dhavernas earned a Genie nomination as the waitress torn among the interests of several men, including the sleazy porn recruiter. Kevin Pollak has a pretty good turn as the sleazy porn recruiter. I'd say his outfit borders on parody, but I've seen people actually dress this way.
Years ago, Roger Ebert talked about the type of low-budget film where we're in a small community that's apparently hosting a Convention for Oddball Characters. That's this film. It tries for dark comedy, and the actors do their best, but it's rarely funny. An apparent murder is the comic highlight, which should tell potential viewers something. Only one of the multiple storylines, Loretta's, really amounts to anything. Niagara Motel is watchable; it's just not particularly memorable.
Directed by Gary Yates
Written by Dani Romain and George F. Walker
Craig Ferguson as Phillie, the Caretaker
Caroline Dhavernas as Loretta
Peter Keleghan as Henry
Damir Andrei as Boris the Motel Owner
Wendy Crewson as Lily
Anna Friel as Denise
Kristen Holden-Ried as R.J.
Kevin Pollak as Michael
Catherine Fitch as Sophie
Tom Barnett as Dave
Harry Nelken as Bartender
Ashley Little penned the novel. Her earlier work, aimed at YA and adult audiences, has received a far bit of attention. Anatomy of a Girl Gang (2014) garnered impressive reviews, received a handful of award nominations, and won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. I haven't read her other work. I'll assume its success explains Niagara Motel, a strange, short novel, published in 2016 but set in 1992.
The novel begins well, in a motel in Niagara Falls, Ontario and ends dramatically at the Rodney King Riots. Tucker narrates. He's eleven years old; his mother is a narcoleptic stripper. Of course she is. When she gets injured in a narcolepsy-related accident, Tucker finds himself at a halfway home for teens. The dynamics there aren't good, but he finds a friend in Meredith, a sixteen-year-old pregnant prostitute with an obligatory heart of gold. After witnessing the killing of a halfway home employee, the pair heads out on a road trip to find Tucker's father. Tucker has become convinced his dad is Sam Malone from Cheers. Meredith assumes the kid's deluded, but she wants a vacation.
Little establishes a credible friendship between the two. At that point, she needed to find something for her characters to do, something in keeping with the quirky-but-more-or-less-realistic tone established by the early chapters. I suspect that may have happened, too. Just possibly-- and I am guessing-- Little wrote a novella about the kids going to Boston, being disillusioned, but bonding. She couldn't sell a novella, or was advised to write something longer and so, Niagara Motel: the novel. Certainly, that explanation would make sense of what happens after Tucker and Meredith leave the real-life Cheers.
After Boston, Tucker and Meredith gump their way across America. Along the way, they meet quirky characters-- a hippie couple, a fabulous drag queen-- all real-life people who will become notorious. They ride along in Timothy McVeigh's van. Nearer to Colorado, the mother of Eric Harris picks them up. Li'l Eric and his buddy Dylan Klebold stare the entire time at their Gameboys, and Meredith is sure they'll turn out bad. And so on.
Granted. Little isn't going for literal history here1. The conclusion, in fact, expressly suggests a non-literal interpretation of the pair's adventures. I'd be willing to accept these encounters as some kind of road-trip magic realism/heavy symbolism if they amounted to anything. They don't. The novel's promising young pilgrims aren't overly affected by them, and the kids develop little more than they did in the opening chapters. The future infamous aren't affected by the kids, either. Lorena Bobbit has already decided to lop off her husband's penis when she meets Tucker and Meredith at the Grand Canyon. Young Tucker knows upon meeting Paul Bernardo and Karla Holmolka that they're not good people, but they don't actually do anything to reveal that fact, nor do the serial killers draw any inspiration from the encounter. In the end, the Very Special Guests exist as fairly pointless 1990s Easter Eggs. Even the death back at the halfway home has no apparent lingering effects. Nothing seems to affect them after Boston, really, until they get a lift into Los Angeles with Reginald Denny.
Once in LA, we get a child's-eye view of a city tearing itself asunder, though the focus remains on the two white children caught in the chaos. Indeed, their constant narrow escapes, and their dead-perfect assessment of people's personalities feels like a bit of an insult to people who suffered because of various historical events, or who didn't have the amazing ability to judge the mind's eye by the face's construction. Nevertheless, the descriptions are vivid and disturbing, and the point-of-view remains plausible.
Little has a strong prose style, and someone in Canadian publishing obviously believes she's going to develop into something big. She clearly has that potential. But there's nothing much new in Niagara Motel and no great depth to its army of secondary characters. Like a lot of well-written but unsatisfying books, it left me wondering what publisher's parties these people know about.
For ReQuest 2018.
1. She acknowledges in an introductory note that she's not doing a chronologically accurate version of the decade. Even the episodes of Cheers they watch reflect the book's unreality, since Woody and Coach seemingly co-star in them.