Trouble in the Garden: Family Discord Drama Is Timely but By-the-Numbers

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C

A young Indigenous woman is arrested at a native land rights protest and placed under house arrest with her long-estranged white half-brother in Trouble in the Garden, a first-feature from documentary filmmaker Roz Owen who traces the ensuing tensions between Philippa/Raven her real estate agent brother Colin and their family.

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As part of her bail conditions, Raven wears an electronic ankle bracelet, limiting most of the action to one suburban home and the yard where Raven sets up a pup tent, making this feel, in effect, like a one-set stage play on film.

Read our interview with Trouble in the Garden writer/director Roz Owen

The subject matter is timely. The background is the so-called "sixties scoop," from the late-fifties to the 1980s, in which welfare authorities across the country removed an estimated 20,000 Indigenous children from their parents and placed in non-Indigenous homes.

Last year, a Saskatchewan judge awarded a class-action suit by a group of survivors a settlement of $850 million in compensation for the loss of cultural identity. The claims administrator, Collectiva Class Action Services, is currently on a cross-country tour holding information sessions and gathering data on who is eligible for the compensation. The process of applying for the compensation, according to APTN, is stirring up traumatic memories for many of the survivors, who may be granted between $25,000 to $50,000 each in compensation for their stolen childhoods.

To frame the issue, Owen has picked a family drama with distinct echoes of Sophocles’ Antigone, including the adoptive rebellious daughter, her special relationship to the land, and her fraught relationship with the brother. Otherwise, the soundtrack is Indigenous musicians (including Buffy Sainte-Marie), sometimes with sounds involving a lot of hollow reverb and sharp amplification, suggesting a horror movie.

Stars Cara Gee and Jon Cor are good-looking enough to be models with an onscreen awkwardness that can't be entirely credited to their complicated sibling history. Ensconced at Colin's family home, Raven shifts erratically between sullen exasperation and bursts of enthusiasm and games with Colin's adoring daughter, who is happy to have such a spontaneous playmate.

Meanwhile, Colin's exceedingly blond and pregnant wife (Kelly Van der Burg) worries about the inmate living in her yard and displays an implausible ignorance and insensitivity. (She just can't see how any mother could give up her baby for adoption.). Finally, Raven shows off her artistic creativity, explains indigenous history to her and wins her over.

Things come to a head with the arrival of Raven's adoptive parents (Canadian theatre veterans Fiona Reid and Frank Moore, bringing some welcome acting depth) who arrive at Colin's house, fresh from a Scottish ancestral tour, on their way to their new home, which is being built on disputed land. Over the course of an evening, predictable gruesome revelations spill like the Scotch whisky Dad uses to refill his glass.

For the sake of dramatic originality, it might have been profitable to spend less time on the white family's culpability and more on what Raven has been doing in the intervening years, including the political and communal bonds she has formed with her Native culture. Those connections are limited to phone calls to fellow activists, with a few visits from her boyfriend (the underused Wesley French.)

None of this is to knock this earnest attempt to bring injustice to light. Every drama involves a narrow window of success and a large window of failure; when the stakes are high, the dimensions of those apertures are amplified.

Trouble in the Garden. Directed and written by Roz Owen. Starring Cara Gee, Jon Cor, Kelly Van der Burg, Fiona Reid, Frank Moore, and Wesley French. Trouble in the Garden shows at the Imagine Carlton Cinema (Toronto) and The Plaza (Calgary) on February 15, followed by The Rainbow (Regina) on March 1, and The Roxy (Saskatoon) on March 8.