What’s interesting about this film is that the basic story is pretty similar to A Girl At My Door‘s: the protagonist is a prickly, standoffish loner with an embarrassing history (an actual criminal record, in this case, exact details unspecified but it involved molesting a minor); they are exiled to a small town (self-exiled, in this case, to North Bay, ON); befriends a troubled teen who is suffering abuse (only bullying, in this case); goes beyond the call of duty and tries to help, and in the process gets a little too involved and opens himself up to serious problems. The main difference is that What We Have is a personal journey; everything that Maurice goes through, even his relationship with Allan, is linked only to his own issues.
Which is not a bad thing. I really enjoyed What We Have, except for one highly problematic scene at the very end: when Maurice finally opens up to Michael and explains all those flashbacks to the audience. He had been molested by his stepfather, who seemed to love him more than his mother. But Maurice was also in love with him, evidently enjoyed the experience, but it messed him up enough to make him prone to do the same, because part of him didn’t see anything wrong with it. Though I appreciate that this wasn’t the intent, it still comes way too close to old harmful stereotypes linking homosexuality and pedophilia, or homosexuality and past sexual abuse. The worst thing is, it was unnecessary: there were so many other ways you could have justified both Maurice’s isolation and his overinvolvement in Allan’s life without impacting the story at all.
Because criminal record or no, Maurice’s situation is extremely delicate. He has to be a good role model and build trust while keeping good boundaries, give advice without projecting his own crap on Allan’s situation or making things worse, etc… It’s a tough job for anyone. Maurice did try his best to keep the right balance, but his best wasn’t good enough.
Everything else was lovely, though. Maxime Desmons has a great touch with symbols, and they mostly felt organic to the story: Maurice as an actor (ie: a professional liar) playing the Miser (hoarding his gold, hoarding his feelings, driving everybody away): Allan’s gift of the little diorama, with its secret photos, which Maurice locks away in a cupboard, secrets within secrets. It did get heavy-handed near the end, such as when Maurice is running down the main street, then stops running (hint hint) and looks back.
The closing scene, with Maurice stripping naked and swimming in the open water of Lake Nipissing, also felt a bit clumsy at first, but in hindsight works on multiple levels. The sea is a common symbol of birth or rebirth, but here it’s also contrasted with the constrained indoor swimming pool where Maurice always swims. You could see it as the freedom of a new life lived without walls and secrets: much scarier, but ultimately more fulfilling. Honestly, I’m suspicious of any epiphany that supposedly makes one’s hangups magically disappear, but hey: this is fiction, it’s got to end somehow, so why not do it in an optimistic way?