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Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in Night Raiders.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

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  • Night Raiders
  • Written and directed by Danis Goulet
  • Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart and Amanda Plummer
  • Classification N/A; 97 minutes
  • Available in theatres starting Oct. 8

Critic’s Pick

In 2017, Cameron Bailey, the artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival and now its co-head, performed a daring act, in these very pages: He questioned whether Canadian filmmakers knew what kind of stories they should be telling.

“The stereotypical Canadian feature film is a story of personal alienation,” Bailey wrote in a Globe and Mail op-ed. “But could it be that our cinema’s personal fictions, with their private hurts and secret pleasures, shut out too much of the world? … What if our filmmakers, along with our film schools, funders, distributors, festivals and critics, turned to face the roiling reality that defines Canada today? What if we stopped pretending that Canada is safe, nice and boring enough to leave off the big screen, while we focus on personal fictions? Instead, we could rip the lid off and reveal very Canadian acts of deceit, murder, betrayal and corruption that happen every day across this great country.”

Set in the year 2043, Night Raiders offers a depressing if entirely believable portrait of Canada 2.0.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

The piece ruffled the feathers of the homegrown industry – at least to a degree that such polite plumage could ever be disturbed. But, five years later, I was reminded of the force of Bailey’s provocation while watching the new Canadian film, Night Raiders. Whether by accident or design, the feature-length debut of writer-director Danis Goulet, who was once a programmer for TIFF, plays like a high-budgeted, guns-blazing, ALL-CAPS reply to Bailey’s original cri du coeur. A thoughtful and invigorating sci-fi thriller quite unlike anything else this country has produced, Night Raiders takes a hard look at Canada’s past and sets an oil-slick fire to the idea of our safe, nice and boring nation.

Set in the year 2043, Night Raiders offers a depressing if entirely believable portrait of Canada 2.0. The land has been annexed by the U.S. government, torn apart by civil war, and divided by walls. Children are property of the state, with all youth above the age of five enlisted in the as-sinister-as-it-sounds “Academy.” And there is a raging pandemic restricting freedom of movement (though it should be noted the film was shot pre-COVID).

At the start of the film, resourceful single mother Niska (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers) is living off the grid, hiding her young daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) from brute government forces, which patrol the skies through an army of buzzard-like drones. But Niska’s fragile existence shatters when Waseese is caught and shipped to the Academy, where she’s destined for a future of state servitude that’s explicitly designed to wipe out any trace of her Cree heritage. Desperate to save her daughter, Niska joins up with an underground band of freedom fighters composed of Cree rebels and other colonized people, including Maori vigilante Leo (Alex Tarrant). Their plan: infiltrate the Academy, rescue Waseese, and, eventually, restore sovereignty to the land’s subjugated people.

With a generous budget and a talented international cast – presumably made partly possible by the clout of executive producer Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit) – Goulet delivers a ride that entertains and engages. Her grey-grit landscape may echo the many dystopia artists who have come before -- there is a lot of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men accenting Night Raiders’ crumbling urbanity – but Goulet is more interested in mining the history books that were/should have been/will never be written about Canada’s residential school system.

With a generous budget and a talented international cast, Danis Goulet delivers a ride that entertains and engages.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

The Cree/Métis filmmaker is not nearly the first artist to tackle the atrocity of residential schools on-screen. Nor is she the first to fuse our ugly history with high-stakes genre filmmaking (see Jeff Barnaby’s 2013 debut Rhymes for Young Ghouls). But with Night Raiders, Goulet can confidently claim to be today’s most effective practitioner of Indigenous sci-fi, a subgenre in which time-tested cinematic thrills – speculative fiction, violence, a heightened sense of style – act as Trojan Horses for themes that audiences might otherwise ignore. Everyone wins.

Including Tailfeathers, a rising actress and filmmaker in her own right (2019′s The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open). Playing a mother who must balance her daughter’s future with the fate of all humanity, not to mention her own survival, Tailfeathers tears into Niska with frightening ease. It is the kind of powerful and charismatic performance that cements a career, and Goulet wisely keeps her star front and centre whenever possible.

At the end of Bailey’s op-ed five years ago – which might have well been 50 years given the shifts that the Canadian industry has since run up against – Bailey asked, “who will step forward to share the stories we don’t tell?” Goulet is certainly not the only storyteller accepting the challenge. But right now, the chilling and provocative Night Raiders puts her in the best position to break this country’s image to the rest of the world.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.