By Liam Lacey
A 14-year-old First Nations girl makes a 500-kilometre kayak trip along British Columbia’s inter-island Inside Passage waterway as a last request from a dying uncle in Kayak to Klemtu. The feature from Heiltsuk/Mohawk filmmaker Zoe Leigh Hopkins is blessed with an idyllic setting on the shores of the Great Bear Rainforest and a righteous pro-environmental message but the impact is undermined by a script that wobbles between earnestness and stilted humour.
For better or worse, this is the sort of issue-oriented film that teachers like to show to middle-school classes.
Ella (Ta’Kaiya Blaney) is handed a big responsibility by her uncle Dave (Evan Adams). He wants her to travel to her family’s home community of Klemtu, home of the Kitasoo people, to address a government hearing on the potential impact of a pipeline and proposed oil-tanker traffic through ancestral fishing waters. The late Uncle Dave, a saintly presence seen in flashbacks and heard in poetic voice-over, guides her on her mission.
Blaney is a photogenic and self-confident performer, and this might have been a more compelling film if Ella had been permitted to take this spirit journey alone (like Reese Witherspoon in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild but with a political purpose). Here, she’s cast in the role of a self-righteous adolescent in a thinly drawn family dramedy.
The characters include Dave’s non-Native widow, school-teacher Cory (Sonja Bennett), whose ineptness with all things outdoors is over-mined for comedy. Dave’s curmudgeonly brother Don (Lorne Cardinal) is an anti-environmentalist grump who, inevitably, eventually reveals his vulnerable sensitive side. Dave’s white slacker stepson Alex (Jared Ager-Foster) is determined to go back to the Klemtu community where he lived as a kid.
Dialogue can be wincingly clunky: “We all have a Klemtu-sized hole in our hearts,” says one character.
The best case for the film’s environmental message is when the characters are out of the frame. While an onscreen map intermittently traces the 25-day voyage, we experience some glorious overhead drone shots of the kayaks cutting through the water, sunsets, seals, whales and eagles, who will clearly not benefit from an oil spill in their lives.
Kayak To Klemtu. Directed by Zoe Leigh Hopkins. Written by Hopkins, Michael Sparanga and Scooter Corkle. Starring Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Sonja Bennett, Lorne Cardinal, Evan Adams, and Jared Ager-Foster. Opens May 25 at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema and in other cities throughout the spring/summer.