Although the setting is specific, the condition is universal, or at least movie universal: Larry Sole (Joel Evans) is one of those outcast teenagers who walks alone down the halls of his high school, ever vigilant for those cruel cohorts who prey on him like he is a lame antelope separated from the herd.
But Larry, for all his obvious pain and vulnerability (most evident in half-mast eyelids that carry a heavy past), is a glib survivor, bearing his eccentricities as a badge of distinction as though he knows that he will get by – and maybe even get the girl (Chloe Rose) – as long as he remains true to himself and sticks to the script. It seems he has seen the movie too.
The Lesser Blessed, Anita Doron’s sober but stylishly assembled adaptation of Richard Van Camp’s 1996 novel – set in the largely native fictional community of Fort Simmer in the Northwest Territories, is at once a departure from and a follower of teen-movie form, and the fact of the former almost forgives the fate of the latter.
Larry’s status as a Tli Cho (or Dogrib) teen navigating an isolated community – where escape is primarily made through drugs, booze and random acts of criminal stupidity – makes him an exceptional figure, but his ultimate trajectory, toward acceptance of himself through facing his own demons, means that he is part of the long march of misunderstood movie adolescents that leads from the frozen Canadian North straight down to James Dean’s Los Angeles in Rebel Without a Cause. Indeed, if you can imagine that movie reconstituted as a Canadian outback drama in which the Sal Mineo character is foregrounded as a Tli Cho kid who finds a surrogate family in his buddy and girlfriend, you’ve seen this movie too.
But it’s in the particulars that Doron’s movie thrives: the big white sky that hangs like a threat of permanent winter over everything, the long distances walked between home, school and a friend’s place, the cramped kitchens and living rooms where TVs flicker constantly and parents watch as their kids exit into another night of pointless partying. Fathers are conspicuously absent – and the fate of Larry’s figures prominently in the boy’s state of anguished denial – and everywhere is the reminder that this is a cycle that is as tough as tundra to break.
As Larry, first-time actor Joel Evans is a compellingly low-key presence, a teenager who has developed a thick veneer of proud weirdness to defend himself against elements both social and natural, and whose outward attitude of geeky self-deprecation is a tactical deflection of the blows that descend with every bleak sunrise. Only the scars on his back – which he hides from everyone but us – tell the true tale. That we know it before it is told may be a hindrance to undivided fascination, but it fits the story of a place where endings are so often already written.