Personal stories are the province of the emerging filmmaker and every year the BC Spotlight competition at VIFF is filled with a fresh batch of intimate debuts. This iteration is no exception, but this year the new arrivals have landed within a climate that has shifted somewhat. Earlier this year, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey penned an op ed in The Globe and Mail bemoaning a certain tendency among Canadian indie features to favour small, personal stories – “coming of age, family tensions, falling in and out of love” – over more ambitious and widely aimed socially and politically minded works. Shocking as it was, coming from perhaps the single most powerful individual in the Canadian festival scene, this contemptible lecture thankfully received pushback from filmmakers. It remains to be seen whether anyone will take Bailey’s complaints to heart – perhaps it is too early to be reflected in the debuts of 2017 – but it remains one of the questions haunting Canada’s mounting national debate over what exactly lies ahead for its cultural industries.
Luk’Luk’I, the feature debut of Wayne Wapeemukwa, seems initially well-positioned to answer Bailey’s challenge for a more socially conscious cinema. Even if it weren’t emerging from a mostly vacuous and Hollywood-chasing local film scene, it’s audacious concept would still be just as striking and original. Set over the course of the last day of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, it follows the plights and paths of five marginalized residents (played by four non-actors and one professional) of Vancouver’s rapidly gentrifying Downtown East Side as they navigate a fevered city counting down the hours to the gold medal hockey final.
Vancouver’s uneasy relationship with the Olympics has passed virtually unnoticed in its local cinema, and Luk’Luk’I (expanded from Wapeemukwa’s 2014 short) aims to rectify that with a pointed critique rooted in observation. The day takes us from Angel (Angel Gates), a struggling mother, Indigenous person, and occasional sex worker, to Eric (Eric Buurman), a heroin addict hoping to meet up with his son before the game, to Angela AKA “Roller Girl,” (Angela Dawson) a trans woman and roller-skating phenom seen all over Vancouver, to Ken (Ken Harrower), a disabled gay man trying to get to the closing ceremonies. As the day unfolds, each of our protagonists face systemic and personalized indifference, abuse, rejection, and even violence.
Indeed, by packing the day with four major threads rushing to impress every violation upon us over an all-too-brief 90 minutes, the limits of narrative contrivance are pushed as far as they can go, approaching Inarritu-like levels of stacked frustrations. And it’s here that the film begins to break apart as an effective political and dramatic piece; there is simply too much to cover in detail. To ameliorate this, Wapeemukwa elects to let the film coast from vignette to vignette without ever lingering long enough on any individual one to establish more than the bare facts of immediate plight. Even though the film derives its many of its events from these actors’ lives, many of whom are DTES residents, this structural decision skates close to the edge of treating these episodes with a touristic efficiency.
Compounding matters is a formal approach that metamorphosizes somewhat flippantly: it’s a mash up of gently distant humanist fiction (strikingly photographed in 4:3, no less), some direct cinema elements, and dream pop Nicolas Refn-ripped interludes. At best, this provides some frissons when transitioning from one headspace to another and the schema is sensible on paper as a mode for expressing the gap between longing and brute reality, but in practice it feels like hedging bets; there is always an escape hatch lest any single sequence tire an audience.
This becomes more or less moot by the end, as the film makes an inexorable (and ethically questionable) descent into miserabilist maximalism for thematic effect, right up to a stunningly ill-judged and clumsily mounted comment, if you could call it that, on the plight of murdered and missing Indigenous women. What is meant to shock for a well-intended effect merely registers as formal brinksmanship in poor taste, a left-field coda more abusive than acidic. That which is original and great in Luk’Luk’I’s concept remains largely unmined; perhaps it will open the door for others to pick up the threads.
Multi-award winner Never Steady, Never Still, the long-awaited feature debut of Vancouver writer-director Kathleen Hepburn, treads familiar ground with heart aching poise and sensitivity. Drawing on Hepburn’s own experience with Parkinson’s Disease in her family, it follows Judy (Shirley Henderson), a longtime Parkinson’s sufferer, and her son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin), through a season of new chapters, loss, heartbreak, and uncertain futures. Eighteen year-old Jamie takes a job in the Alberta oil patch but remains isolated from his colleagues, caught up in uncertainty about both his future and his sexual identity. At home in Northern BC, his mom attempts to maintain her independent life in the face of the ever encroaching disease.
In many ways this is familiar territory. Favouring the look and feel of natural light and shot on 35mm, its textures and muted colours place it within a certain tradition of rough hewn, almost quilted, personal narratives. The fading light, the passing of the seasons, and the closeness to water all evoke, if not mystery, a certain sense of immanence pervading all things. This sense of reckoning with memory and place is further aided by a sensitively applied voiceover at key moments, most powerfully in the earliest minutes. It’s recognizably within a stream of generous but controlled humanist filmmaking, the only real prestige cinema that the British Columbian film world can lay claim to, and for the most part it is beautifully calibrated here, achieving in its best moments a membrane of aching love that feels expansively offered from its creators to its audience. Hepburn achieves here a keen awareness of the viscosity of time, not only in the interrelation of scenes and seasons, but equally in the tentative nature of her dialogues.
From the sublime to the crude: Jason James’ Entanglement embodies all that is exhausted and decrepit in the world of #BCFilm. Set in a generic American locale, with name actors guaranteed to turn heads at the Leos (in this case, Jess Weixler and Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch), it’s an ostensibly light-hearted romp with a dash of quantum theory to add that special angle. Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch is divorced and suicidally depressed, but things take a turn when he learns he almost had an adopted sister who ended up with a different family. With new purpose, he sets out to find her, meeting the not-pixie-at-all Weixler, and soon Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch is wrestling with the question of whether they should try to be the siblings they never had, or something more. Meanwhile, his wonderful but for-all-intents-invisible neighbour Tabby (Diana Bang) waits for him to notice. Even without a truly brain meltingly bad third-act reveal, it’s an unsurprisingly blatant exercise in laziness, latent contempt, cynicism, and disingenuity; pure Pacific-farmed content destined for American movie channels, but probably not the one employing Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch.
More honestly sincere but not much more encouraging is Ana Valine’s Once There Was A Winter, the followup to her VIFF-2014-fêted Sitting on the Edge of Marlene. A one-room potboiler, Winter takes Lady (Kate Corbett) unwittingly into a nest of vipers when her welding partner Welder (Teach Grant) stops for a quick beer at his brother’s house. The brother, Hunter (Juan Riedinger) and his bud Plumber (Kris Demeanour) put Welder, and by extension, Lady through their paces over a past grievance, hinting and then threatening violence in an escalating game of… something. It’s not altogether clear what that is, but the point is to milk roughly 70 near real-time minutes of suspense out it and go home happy. Despite a potent subtext – mostly centered on reverberating waves of toxic masculinity – Valine leaves most of that buried, opting to keep things at an actor’s workshop level of intensity. Spirited blocking and savoury line readings abound but amount to little more than so much garnish. None of these performances register with the lived-in presences they are aiming for; Riedinger in particular seems to be modeling his character on a greatest hits compilation of Jon Bernthal tics. Not even the mythical portent of not naming these characters is used in any meaningful way. It’s a mess.
The most unexpected surprise of the lineup takes place entirely in Alberta. Cody Bown’s Gregoire is set in the writer-director’s hometown of Fort McMurray, the center of Alberta’s oil production, where it follows a quartet of barely-twentysomethings trying to get a leg up on a derrick-haunted life that is already plateauing in ambition and expectations. For brothers Felix (Jared Abrahamson) and Louis (Jedidiah Goodacre), that means petty theft, street fights, video games, and pushing their overworked single mother to the breaking point. For besties Misha (Morgan Taylor Campbell) and Alexa (Emily Haine), it’s a parade of losing their retail jobs, hunting down boyfriends, and navigating an unwanted pregnancy.
Gregoire doesn’t break new ground in its storytelling, which covers a gamut of familiar coming-of-age and teen drama issues, but it excels at diving into the fabric of these young lives. It admirably takes its time in fleshing out each character beyond their immediate struggles; in the film’s best scene, an extended conversation between Misha and an older oil worker covers an array of personal history, loss, and regret, with no particular bearing or obvious payoff throughout the rest of the story. It’s simply enough to sit and hear one story for its own sake. Bown’s tightrope facility with these extended dialogues is refreshing; there’s a woolspun and lived-in feel that suggests long preparation and honest care at capturing internalized and competing feelings of loyalty and frustration.
Gregoire does eventually mosey its way into a Mean Streets-style dilemma between brothers and despite the familiarity of the conceit, it allows Jared Abrahamson (the titular destroyer of last year’s Hello Destroyer) to present some truly exceptional work. Starting from a somewhat shopworn bruiser concept (in which Abrahamson is already frequently typecast), he fashions a creature who coasts on the threat of explosive rage while hiding deep reservoirs of pain and rejection. It’s this collaboration of actor and director that makes Gregoire more than yet another mildly promising debut, as Abrahamson uses his trademark intensity to create a smokescreen of the heart that wafts away late in the film with devastating force.
And it’s the surprise of Gregoire that reinforces, perhaps, why small and personal stories seem to dominate the Canadian festival scene: with such a massive landmass to cover, only those experiences that have been long fermented in the heart have the richness and longevity to share something essential – that of a place or a person or the land itself – by which we are all enriched.