Review: 'The Lesser Blessed'
Life in a Northern (Canadian) Town
Guest blogger Rebecca Romani looks the recent art film, "The Lesser Blessed," about a First Nation teenager in a small northern Canadian town and the secret that haunts him- bleak, but worth a look.
Life in a small, depressed town is seldom much fun for anyone, but for Larry, the young lead in the Canadian film, “The Lesser Blessed,” now showing at the Digital Gym, on El Cajon Boulevard, it’s a life of secrets, questions and a search for identity.
For Larry Sole (newcomer Joel Evans), a First Nation’s teenager (Dogrib Nation) being Native Canadian is the least of what sets him apart in a small reservation high school. There’s his quiet nature, his missing dad, his affinity for heavy metal, and, as we see in the first frames, some horrific scars puckering down his back.
Larry is the new loner in his high school, dogged by a slightly psychotic white quarterback sort, Darcy (Adam Butcher), who has ferreted out Larry’s past and uses it to torment him in ways big and small. Larry yearns for the aptly named blonde, Juliet (the luminous Chloe Rose), who becomes enamored of the next new kid, Johnny, a charismatic, non-conformist fellow First Nation’s kid with a destitute single mom and a smart-mouthed little brother. When Johnny (Kiowa Gordon of "Twlight") saves Larry from getting mangled by Darcy, Larry incorporates him into his world and the three, Larry who longs for Juliet and Johnny, who actually has Juliet, make an odd, but touching trio.
Like all kids in small towns, their choices are limited and they choose the typical vices that scourge impoverished reservation towns where single mothers struggle to make ends meet- alcohol, free-basing and revolving relationships.
Despite the difficulties, Larry’s mom (Tamara Podemski) struggles to give Larry balance while hiding the secret of their prior life of abuse even from her new boyfriend, a First Nations ranger (a slightly more than cameo by Benjamin Bratt, "La Mission") who does his best to bring calmness to a family in desperate need of a break.
Things come to a head when Larry’s past abuse at the hands of his father, a horrific fire and the tragic aftermath come crashing down on him, forcing him to confront both his abuser in the present, Darcy, and the abuse of his past, if he is to have any future at all.
Director Anita Doran’s new feature is based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Richard Van Camp, a Dogrib himself. The casting is brilliant with outstanding performances by 16 year old Joel Evans and Chloe Rose as the love interest not quite sure what her heart really wants.
Told mostly in flashback, the film is a gorgeously shot, slow burn that reveals the source of Larry’s physical and psychological trauma in the last quarter of the film. Unfortunately, by the time the film gets to that point, the bleakness and the deeply shadowed look of the film leaves one feeling kind of numb- probably the point- but the sprinkled hints and parallels (horrific father/ghastly fellow student) here and there are just not enough to sustain deeper investment.
The other problem is that the film lingers on the usual stereotypes- troubled teens in a hard-scrabble existence, the ghosts of domestic violence, single moms either heroically fighting against all odds or clinging by their fingernails while their kids raise themselves. The film adaptation seems to be missing part of the message of Van Camp’s book that family, community and a sense of self will help keep the First Nation’s youth safe from the ills of poverty that dog their shadows. On the other hand, this is no Northern Exposure, with its quirky First Nation’s characters, nor does it stoop to relegating First Nation’s people to the wise elder on the sidelines.
That said, “The Lesser Blessed,” is a good portrait of coming of age for a First Nation’s boy in a setting that has plagued many First Nation’s people for years, including the reservations around San Diego, before the advent of casinos. Larry and Johnny’s grappling with their native identity feels clear and right, and by the end of the film, Larry is ready to wash himself clean of his pain.
The film is bleak, but worth a look.
“The Lesser Blessed” runs until July 4. See Digital Gym for show times and ticket information.