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film review

Hey, Viktor!

Directed by: Cody Lightning

Written by: Cody Lightning, Samuel Miller

Starring: Cody Lightning, Hannah Cheesman, Simon Baker

Classification: R, 102 minutes

Opens in theatres March 15

Recently, Indigenous artists have made great strides in taking control of the narratives being produced about Indigenous lives – past and present.

Take Lily Gladstone’s bravura performance in the Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon – even though she didn’t manage to secure this year’s Oscar award for best actress, which went to Emma Stone. Or Kali Reis holding her own with Jodie Foster in the latest season of True Detective or Alaqua Cox making inroads into the Marvel universe with Echo.

These are just the most recent examples – following works such as Sterlin Harjo’s Reservation Dogs or the late Canadian filmmaker Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum – that offer us stories and characters that go beyond powwows and peace pipes.

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Cree actor Cody Lightning’s directorial debut Hey, Viktor! can be seen as another addition to this growing canon of complex representations of Indigenous identity, especially when popular culture or society at large chooses to either stereotype Indigenous peoples or ignore their calls for action on a variety of issues ranging from land to human rights.

Hey, Viktor!, a raucous mockumentary, is a mixed bag, veering wildly from self-deprecating humour and a downright cringefest to moments of heartfelt candour.

For those who may not remember, Lightning played the role of young Victor in the seminal film Smoke Signals, touted by Miramax as “the first feature film written, directed and produced by Native Americans.” The film was a critical success, according to Variety, “and crowd favourite from its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, winning the Filmmakers Trophy for director Chris Eyre and the Audience Award there before its theatrical release that summer.”

Hey, Viktor! is a fictionalized account of Lightning as a former child star looking to revive a career that never quite took off after playing a small role in a movie that has now become part of Indigenous folklore and meme-making.

It’s been more than 25 years, and the Cree kid from Edmonton is now a grown-up with an alcohol problem. He relives his glory days by replaying degrading VHS tapes at workshops for young Indigenous kids. His hapless friend and producer Kate (Hannah Cheesman), who claims to be part Cherokee, champions Lightning’s many attempts to write scripts with a zombie theme.

Lightning’s personal life as a father to two children is also chaotic and adds to the actor’s downward spiral. A series of events leads Lightning to take on directing Smoke Signals 2, which he describes as “a spiritual sequel.” Most of the film’s original stars don’t want to participate in Lightning’s personal redemption project. However, Lightning does manage to convince Simon Baker to reprise his role as his friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire.

Several competing subplots unspool along the way. There’s a bizarre German investor who loves Adam Beach. There’s a hijacked film crew; Colin Mochrie is involved. Turns out that Kate may not be who she thinks she is. Somewhere along the way, a film is made.

Hey, Viktor! is a strange meta-film that works at several moments. Lightning is deliriously unhinged and is clearly unafraid to bare all in this personal send-up as a washed-out actor living off the fumes of the past. The mockumentary format works for the most part, giving the film a rough immediacy. The line between making fun of stereotypes and being ironically stereotypical are blurred so much that you have to wonder whether that demarcation even stands in the first place.

That lack of clarity is ultimately what shortchanges Hey, Viktor! In interviews, Lightning has talked about shooting the film on Enoch Cree Nation, with locations in Edmonton, Devon, Alta., and Wetaskiwin. The film’s crew was 95-per-cent Albertan. However, there’s very little that gives the film a sense of being rooted in that particular community. We’re not sure, for instance, just how close all the former stars of Smoke Signal now live. Do they live within a day’s drive of each other? A few days? Where does Lightning hold his acting workshops? In a local community centre? Is it a school program?

Then there’s the subplot of Kate, Lightning’s high school friend and manager. Cheesman is deliciouslydeadpan in the role. Indigenous identity and status have been the subjects of several media investigations in the recent past. Of course, Lightning is absolutely allowed his own perspective on a deeply complicated issue with no easy answers. Lightning’s take, however, is ultimately flippant whereas it could have been even more pointed.

Yet, there’s a meta-meta-ness to the film that’s fascinating in hindsight. Lightning’s film about the former star of coming-of-age story becomes a delayed coming-of-age of a former child actor that then morphs into a reckoning with his present. When all the gags are played out, you get the sense that there is, in fact, a community of artists ready to tell their stories. All they need is a project to coalesce around.

Hey, Viktor! may have started out as an inside joke. Hopefully, it spins off into other projects that pull no punches.

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. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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