In A Quiet Girl, adopted Montreal filmmaker Adrian Wills commits, on camera and in real time, to unravelling the mystery of his complex beginnings in Newfoundland. Spurred on by a meager clue in his adoption documents, Wills spends two years travelling from the spare beauty of Canada’s most eastern coastline to the red heat of Arizona in search of answers. What Wills finally uncovers pierces into the meaning of family, revealing disquieting parallels between his own life and that of the birth mother he never knew.
This moving feature documentary combines 16mm footage and contemporary images with deeply personal conversations, transforming an urgent search for identity into a quest to give a quiet girl her voice. Ultimately, Wills honours his birth mother’s resilience and, in doing so, reveals his own.
How far do you go to find the truth?
“When you’re adopted, you spend your life… feeling isolated,” Montreal filmmaker Adrian Wills says in the opening scenes of his starkly moving new documentary, A Quiet Girl. Travelling from the spare beauty of Canada’s most eastern coastline to the red heat of Arizona, the film follows Wills’ two-year odyssey as he unearths the—at-times shocking—truths behind his adoption from Newfoundland in the early 1970s. Spurred on by a meager clue on his adoption documents, Wills commits to discovering everything on camera, and in real time.
The filmmaker has spent a lifetime circling “the family story,” but what Wills finally uncovers pierces into the meaning of family, revealing disquieting parallels between his own life and that of the birth mother he never knew. As an unmarried woman in a staunchly Catholic community, described by all who knew her as a “quiet girl,” her choices were brutally few. And as the filmmaker’s search exposes darker and more troubling details, Wills is driven to go deeper—leading him to confront his own vulnerabilities and what really happened following his adoption at just four months old.
In Newfoundland, Wills discovers a community spirit and generosity among hard-working men and women who put their faith in religion and each other. While this seems a world away from the urban life in Montreal that Wills was adopted into, both are steeped in long-held secrets. As author Michael Crummey tells the filmmaker, “It doesn’t matter how small a community is, the whole world is there—all the good and all the bad.”
Combining 16mm poetic footage and beautiful contemporary images with deeply personal conversations, A Quiet Girl illuminates the harsh realities of a complex life in a humane light. It transforms an urgent search for identity into a quest to give a quiet girl her voice. Ultimately, Wills honours his birth mother’s resilience and, in doing so, reveals his own.
In A Quiet Girl, adopted Montreal filmmaker Adrian Wills discovers, on camera and in real time, the startling truths of his complex beginnings in Newfoundland. Shocking details drive Wills to the core of his birth mother’s resilience, and ultimately his own. In this moving feature documentary that combines 16mm footage and contemporary images with deeply personal conversations, Wills’ voyage transforms from an urgent search for identity into a quest to give a quiet girl her voice.
When filmmaker Adrian Wills sets out to discover the story behind his adoption, his voyage reveals startling truths he could never have imagined, and shocking details he had tried to forget.
At the beginning of making this film, you were committed to revealing what you discovered in real time. Why?
I had watched a lot of films about adoption before A Quiet Girl and I wanted to make something that reflected how I felt inside, this sense of not knowing anything and feeling separate from the world because of my adoption. I wanted to invite the audience into that experience in a real way—so I agreed to disclose my story, as it was revealed to me, in real time, on camera.
Was there a moment in the process when transparency was particularly demanding or freeing?
As a filmmaker, I’m used to following a story and following a character, and in A Quiet Girl, I ended up becoming that character! My original plan was to find my birth mother, discover Newfoundland, and piece together a little bit of who I could have been. I didn’t realize that the journey would take me to the heart of my own uncertainties, insecurities and fears. And that was very demanding because it was all on camera—at times, the surprise of it; and at other times, the devastation of it.
When I learned that my birth mother, Mary Margaret, had passed—at the same age that I was when I was making the film—it changed everything for me, not just in the film, but in my life. I experienced a profound grieving of somebody I didn’t know and also, at the same time, grieving something I couldn’t have. I was also discovering her family and history, and feelings that I never thought I was going to get access to. Something was dying and something was being birthed at the same time. And that’s what the transparency allowed me to capture.
There are many myths about adoption. Is there one that your story challenges?
The kind of Disney view of things is that the child starts with this new family and that it’s done only through selfless love and caring. And that this child is only going to find a better world and a better life. Of course, this happens! But what it negates, like any myth, is the nuance and difficulty that that child has to engage with throughout their life because of the fact that they’re not from that family. And this they know on a deep, emotional level. They’re not just ensconced and nestled within this family where they can look at their parents and understand where they come from by the way people laugh or talk or, you know, the size of their hands or the shape of the nose. There’s this sense of disconnection that I experienced, that I saw my little sister experience. The more I engaged in learning about other people’s accounts of adoption, the more I realized how profoundly that disconnect is shared amongst adopted people—but it is not the popular story. I set out wanting to dissect this and I ended up also appreciating just how much we remain connected to our blood line.
Your adopted family and your birth family lived in similar times but in very different circumstances. Yet, both families held secrets. What is it about families and secrets?
Families are complicated. While I don’t know if secrecy defines all families, I do know it defined mine. The crazy part is that I was adopted into an urban environment with a parent at the centre of the fashion world at the time; and adopted from a religious family in a small community. The environments could not have been more different, yet both kept their secrets. I think, as human beings, we all have our secrets. And that most of the time by revealing them, we grow. Secrets revealed are like a shed skin, kind of like a snake sloughing off its skin, and that’s definitely what I felt making this film, both for me and what I observed for Mary Margaret’s sisters and the other people I spoke to in the film.
At the beginning of making the film, your birth mother’s family were not on camera, but by the end they were full participants. Can you talk about that process of building trust with them?
My aunt Ellen and my cousin Mara didn’t want to be filmed ever, really. But every time I would go to Newfoundland to continue making the film, I would get in contact with them and I would go and have a bite to eat, or they would invite me to the house for dinner. And we would go for walks and we would talk. I would tell them what I was discovering about my birth mother because my aunt Ellen didn’t know a lot about her sister after she gave me up for adoption. Very early on, Ellen generously gifted me the genealogical chart, the family photos and all the lineage factual information, but it was only after we developed a close relationship outside the film that she wanted to participate fully on camera. I was also connected with my aunt Johannah via email. I travelled to Arizona to meet her and I learned everything on camera, all this stuff about Mary Margaret. I discovered so much that I had no idea about and that my aunt Ellen didn’t know about, and I realized that there were similarities in terms of things that had occurred in our lives. I would say the trust was built slowly, through honesty, through being respectful and gentle with one another and through finding familial love.
If you were starting the film again, what is one thing you would do differently?
My process was based on feeling and giving myself permission to live the experience. If I had known where my commitment to transparency and deep belief in truth was going to lead us, would I have made it? I don’t know if I would have made it, except that the film gave me so much more than what I ever thought was possible. Before I made this film, as an adopted person, I thought that the world started with me and that any history that was behind me was like a wall, and I would never be able to break through that wall. My origin story began at that wall. And once I’d finished the film, I realized that what was behind me wasn’t a wall at all. It had been a dam and that dam had broken, and that was just all of my history and part of my identity. That has given me a perspective, and a strength, that I didn’t think was ever going to be possible.
We don’t often see men exposing complex emotions on screen—how did you find the inspiration to expose your vulnerabilities?
I was going through the confusion concerning my birth mother and real challenges to find concrete information, and each time, finding something that would reveal her to me in another way. It was kind of like peeling an onion—layer upon layer upon layer to get to the core. Like chasing a ghost to get a portrait. And the more I learned, the more protective of her I felt.
My emotions were definitely on, and at a certain point, I didn’t think of the story as a film, I thought of it as my life. I mean, the journey was really hard. There were many times that I was left with an unfinished portrait of her and then I had to live with that unfinished portrait until the next time I went to Newfoundland. That’s what was so emotional—the actual real-time experience of grieving the mother that I’m never going to meet, so I never thought about the fact that I was exposing my vulnerabilities when I was making this film. I was just being honest with everything that I was living.
What would you want people to take away from watching the film?
The truth is not always easy. As Michael Crummey says in the film, it can fuck you up. But not knowing, not facing it, is a bit like living in a bubble, not living really. Truth is at the intersection of living. That’s the take away for me, and I hope folks who see the film are inspired to seek their own, in whatever form that takes.
Written and Directed by
Director of Photography
Lullaby for Mary Margaret
by Mara Pellerin
Ellen Cousins Pellerin
Johannah Cousins Malti
Kristin Wills Dahlen
Shawn and Connie Burry
Jean Ann Farrell
Majors Bob and Cassie Kean
Anne Roane Sheldon
Norm and Cavell Woodland
Location Sound Recording
Additional Sound Recording
Additional Sound Design
Tim Baker, pianos, organs, synths, guitars, banjos, voices
Mara Pellerin, voices
“When I Meet My Mother”
“A Whole New Beginning”
“New Arizona Wind”
“Sainte Maries Waters”
All additional music by Tim Baker 2022
Courtesy of Plug Your Ears Publishing Ltd.
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A Quiet Girl
A National Film Board of Canada production
© 2023 The National Film Board of Canada