“I asked my dad for Hockey pads for my Bar Mitzvah…he got me a lap dance,” Shawney Cohen casually tells the camera as he reaches a shovel into a tub of ice.

Shawney is bar manager of The Manor, a strip joint just outside of Toronto that his family has owned and run for 30 years. He is also the director and protagonist of The Manor the documentary – the closing night film of the upcoming Antenna Film Festival in Melbourne.

After a stint working in the city, the filmmaker was reluctantly sucked back into the vortex of his family business, and he’s having a hard time leaving. Shawn decides to turn the lens on his own family, who are collectively stranger than anything that has ever staggered out of a Coen brothers script.

the manor

His antagonistic 400 pound father, Richard, is a domineering presence. He rocks back and forth in a tawdry office, surveying his kingdom of sleaze. He proves almost impossible to talk to, spitting back derisive quips whatever the topic of conversation. On his desk, where some people would have family photos, he has a commemorative plate depicting his Labrador.

Into the office totters Shawn’s sweet, but severely anorexic mother, Brenda. She lays a distressing amount of food in front of Richard. She refuses to eat anything herself, instead perpetually clings to a cup of coffee that is bigger than one of her own thighs. Shawn’s younger brother, Sammy, seems perfectly content with the sordid lifestyle of strip club ownership. He has worked there for 15 years – since his teens – and is able to affect his father’s sense of bravado.

Amidst a world of Foxy Boxing, thigh-highs and jello shots, the softly spoken Shawn seems somewhat of an anomaly, and surprisingly well-adjusted.

The Manor is a testament to successful fly-on-the-wall filmmaking. The family
seem almost completely oblivious to the fact a camera is pointed squarely on their morbidly fascinating existence. Chaotic dinnertable conversation, acerbic bickering, poignant and troubling revelations are all caught on film; nobody seems even slightly perturbed by the hovering presence of a camera crew.

The narrative is told in a satisfyingly simplistic way. Interesting camera work means that the story is visually compelling, without needing any graphical intervention. Dry narration from Shawn explains developments: an overdose of one of the staff, his father’s lapband surgery, his mother’s trip to hospital after a small fall shattered one of her dangerously brittle hips.

the manor

A cast of similarly bizarre periphery characters also prove blackly entertaining: a French-speaking, heroin-dealing Iggy Pop doppelgänger; Sammy’s stripper girlfriend who studies nutrition; Shawn’s normy girlfriend who visits The Manor and timidly fumbles conversation with his father.

The documentary could easily have become aphixiated by its own sense  of pathos. But Shawn’s droll perspective, and the genuine affection he has for his family, becomes the perspective through which the audience relates to the characters. As each family member makes half-hearted attempts to appease their destructive behaviours, Shawn’s frustration – as he watches his mother refuse to eat and his father play a game of chicken with the silicone band squeezed around his stomach – is also the audience’s frustration.

The Manor is ultimately an ode to that strange alchemic thing that is familial love, and a wry acceptance of the circumstances bestowed upon you.

The Manor is the closing night film of the Antenna Documentary Festival running in Melbourne from October 17-20. For more information or to buy tickets, head to the Antenna website. For our previous Documentalist, click here. If you’re digging ReelGood, sign up to our mailing list for exclusive content, early reviews and chances to win big!