By Thom Ernst
It’s ironic that the Native-themed Through Black Spruce explores a crisis of identity, because if there’s any film that’s unsure of what it is, this is it.
Through Black Spruce, adapted from Joseph Boyden’s novel of the same name, follows Annie, an Indigenous woman (Tanaya Beatty) on a trail that might lead to the whereabouts of her identical twin sister, a model who has gone missing in Toronto. The story is set within the distinct culture of Indigenous peoples and followed closely by the contrasting personalities of two people sharing the same physical features; a displaced doppelgänger in pursuit of a mystery in the manipulative world of modeling and advertising.
Unlike the novel, which shares perspectives between characters, Barbara Samuels’ script keeps her focus on Annie. As good as Beatty is as Annie (and certainly the performances in this film stand above the material) not enough is done with Will Bird, played by Brandon Oakes. In many ways Bird, who serves as narrator in the novel, is the most interesting and yet the most diminished character to be transferred from page to screen. Oakes’ performance of Bird is reminiscent of Gary Farmer‘s Philbert in Powwow Highway, and Nobody in Dead Man.
Boyden’s novel does the heavy lifting. His story establishes the ground work for a film that could have been—and what was likely meant to be—a thriller with significant attentiveness to both the crisis of identity and a national crisis of missing Indigenous women. But the movie seems to be engaged in a civil war where one side wants to be a thriller and the other vies to be socially discerning; it might have been both, but sadly, it’s neither.
The movie fails to sufficiently address any crisis to give it a judicious or sharp perspective, and it lacks all components— suspense, tension, and mystery—to make it a suitable thriller. That the movie is so grievously empty of drama is a bit confounding, given that its screenwriter understands how structure works, having written extensively on the television series E.N.G. and North of 60.
Perhaps whatever drama was left in them was spent long before the film even began shooting.
Through Black Spruce dove into production on the heels of public accusations casting doubt on Boyden’s claims of being Indigenous. The accusations hit Boyden hard, having a profound effect on him and his current reign as Canadian Lit Royalty. Through Black Spruce is not only the first of Boyden’s work to become a film, but it’s the first to follow that controversy.
But some refuge can be taken in that the producer who optioned Boyden’s novel, Tina Keeper, is of Cree descent. And some of the film’s actors, most notably Tantoo Cardinal, have spoken out quite elegantly about their own crisis of identity - thereby granting Boyden, and his novel, some clemency.
The real issue of identity crises, and the issue most likely to draw the most attention, becomes harder to side-step the moment Don McKellar is appointed to direct.
McKellar is one of the most recognizable and competent directors working in Canada. It’s too much of a stretch to believe that McKellar was oblivious to the problems ahead of him. The prospects weren’t good that people would embrace an Indigenous-themed film in the hands of a non-Indigenous director – a film already called into question because of its author. Perhaps McKellar thought so too. His directing in Through Black Spruce seems guarded, as if the voices of dissention were already playing out in his head.
It’s curious whether or not anyone reached out to Jeff Barnaby, an Indigenous filmmaker whose Rhymes for Young Ghouls drew the attention and praise of Canadian film legend Norman Jewison. Perhaps Barnaby was just too busy with his zombie epic Blood Quantum to step in.
Or perhaps Barnaby thought better than to take on a film where the most intense drama was happening offscreen.
Through Black Spruce. Directed by Don McKellar. Starring Tanaya Beatty, Brandon Oakes and Tantoo Cardinal. Opens in select theatres March 29.