To poet Wallace Stevens’s indelible baker’s dozen of ways of apprehending a blackbird, first-time feature director Jason Buxton has added a 14th. Sensitive Goth teenager Sean Randall (Connor Jessup) is perched miserably in almost every frame of this uneven but extremely well-acted Canadian film, a blackbird waiting for his moment to be free.
Complete with eyeliner and studded leather jacket, Sean is wildly out of place in his jock-centric high-school culture, an object of derision and abuse. His divorced parents offer no solace. Mom (Tanya Clarke) has effectively abandoned him. Dad (Michael Buie), with whom he now lives, is obsessed with hockey and hunting, and largely incapable of parental nurture.
Meanwhile, Sean’s adolescent hormones are raging in the direction of the prettiest girl in the school – Deanna (Alexia Fast), apparently his solitary friend. But romantically, she’s already spoken for by Cory (Craig Arnold), the local hockey hero.
As hard as Sean tries to tune it out with high-decibel heavy metal wired to his ears, the hostile world intrudes. After one nasty cafeteria encounter, a sympathetic guidance counsellor suggests that Sean purge his anger in a diary.
The nightmare that ensues is at once frightening and entirely plausible: Sean stupidly posts his bullet-ridden revenge fantasy to the Web, and a heavily armed emergency task force descends on him in the middle of the night. Before you can say “Columbine Revisited,” the kid is packed off to Waterville, a lock-up for young thugs.
Now he is twice ensnared. First, there’s the Kafkaesque machinery of the criminal justice system – plead guilty to a crime you never intended to commit and you can be released. (Sean actually reads Kafka in the detention centre.)
More immediately, there’s the genuine menace of sociopathic Trevor (Alex Ozerov), the jail’s dominant tough, sent away for murdering a pedophilic Santa. Pretty soon, Trevor wants to kill Sean.
Even when he’s finally released, harnessed by a broad restraining order, Sean remains in de facto confinement, forever stigmatized, a victim of the community’s narrow-minded attitudes.
All of this might have made for potent cinematic stew. But Buxton’s script meanders at far too leisurely a pace through the various plot thickets, so that by the time Sean spends two weeks in solitary confinement, it begins to feel like we’ve joined him. More critically, by making it clear almost from the start that a sensitive soul is hiding behind the mascara, the film stacks the emotional deck too heavily in his favour, forfeiting the dramatic dividend that more ambiguity about his guilt might have delivered.
As Deanna, Fast strikes the right notes of teenage confusion. Torn between desire and capability, she wants to help Sean but isn’t strong enough to act. Ozerov’s Trevor is a seething cauldron of deep-seated insecurity, always hovering near the tipping point. In his feature-film debut, he makes every moment of screen time count. Jessup, who resembles a young DiCaprio, brings clear intelligence to his creation of Sean; it makes one curious to see what he might do with more challenging roles. Credit to Buxton here for extracting conviction from such young actors. The performances aren’t wholly redemptive, but they are compelling.