Like most university students, Meghan Greeley has spent the first week of September getting ready for classes — the 21-year is going entering the final year of the theatre program at Sir Winfred Grenfell College in her hometown of Corner Brook, Newfoundland. And, like most university students, she’s planning on cutting a few classes, although she has a better reason than most: she’ll be at the Toronto International Film Festival for the world premiere of her feature film acting debut in fellow Newfoundler Sherry White’s affecting drama Crackie.

“It’s definitely surreal,” says Greeley, who plays Crackie’s 17-year old protagonist Mitsy, an aspiring beautician trapped in a suffocating domestic relationship with her domineering grandmother Bride (Mary Walsh). “Every year, our school does a meet-and-greet at the beginning of the semester,” she adds, “and this year the head of the faculty stopped his speech and held up an article in The Globe and Mail about me and the movie.”

Greeley says that while she drew on her theatre experience to help her through her first film role, the differences between the disciplines were often daunting.  “Film acting is very difficult in terms of technique, because it’s all done out of sequence. In theatre, it’s a lot easier to trace your character’s emotional journey from beginning to end, so [shooting out of sequence] made me feel a bit lost, and at first, I was confused by film jargon and the sheer mechanics behind making a movie. The wall of my bedroom in St. John’s was plastered with Post-It notes to help keep track of my character’s progression.”

Mitsy’s stubborn refusal to succumb to her circumstances drives Crackie’s sparse narrative, but she’s also a character defined in no small part by her insecurities: in one of the film’s most painful moments, Bride tells her granddaughter that she’s not likely to get into trouble with boys because she’s not beautiful. “Mitsy’s motivation to become a beautician has a lot to do with her insecurities,” says Greeley. “It was interesting to get inside her skin, to be looking into the mirror at myself but with Mitsy’s eyes. I wasn’t uncomfortable playing ‘homely’ because it’s easier to me than playing somebody who is beautiful.”

A bigger challenge was acting opposite a non-human co-star: Crackie’s title is a local expression for a mixed-breed dog, and Mitsy’s relationship with her adopted dog Sparky – on whom she dotes with the obsessive devotion of a girl who grew up without a mother – provides one of the film’s strongest emotional through-lines. “Hector [the dog who plays Sparky] is incredibly well-trained, and his trainer found amazing tricks to make it seem like he’s really violent,” says Greeley. “It was hard sometimes, because I would be yelling at him, and then the camera would stop and I would try to cuddle him, and he would be very confused. Even a well-trained dog doesn’t understand that the people around him are just acting and that it’s really all ok. But he did his best.”

What are the must-see flicks at TIFF this year? We have the best of the best!