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Fifteen-year-old Jackie (Ella Ballentine) is navigating the tricky transition between vulnerable adolescence and impending adulthood. Raised by her aunt and living under the cloud of all the disappointments endured by the women in her family, Jackie finds herself giving in to internal and external pressures — partying, skipping school, and hitchhiking — in search of her own identity.Band With Pictures

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  • Black Conflux
  • Written and directed by Nicole Dorsey
  • Starring Ella Ballentine, Ryan McDonald and Sofia Banzhaf
  • Classification 14A; 100 minutes

Critic’s pick

At the end of his 1989 documentary on the impressionist painters, Cézanne. Conversation with Joachim Gasquet, the French filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub utters, “I am Cézanne.” What does it mean for a filmmaker to identify with this painter? For Straub, it is less the desire to just film a landscape, but rather, consider the subject’s geology and natural elements, and find a passage connecting the past to the present.

Canadian filmmaker Nicole Dorsey accomplishes a similar feat with her first feature, Black Conflux. Its title is derived from this visual motif, the confluence of two rivers in Newfoundland, captured in an aerial view, with its haunting black water. This river, which appears several times throughout, provides an abstract counterpoint to the film’s plot. Water is flowing ominously downstream. What might be underneath the surface as two paths are getting ready to collide?

Black Conflux is based on unsolved missing women cases in St. John’s from the 1980s, which shared hitchhiking as the probable cause of abduction.

The year is 1987 and a young high schooler named Jackie (Ella Ballentine) is trying to find her place in the world. After her mother had been recently incarcerated for a drunk driving incident, she is in a downward-spiralling progression of experiences wherein, between risks and mistakes, she could either find happiness or be hurt. What makes Jackie so fascinating is her mixture of innocence, world-weariness and confidence. Her rebellion feels fresh as with her fellow high schoolers, she smokes, skips class, hitchhikes, shoplifts and talks frankly about sex. Their decisions to not follow rules and to go out late capture the urgent vitality of their youth.

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Jackie's choices leave her speeding inevitably towards Dennis (Ryan McDonald), a socially inept loner with a volatile dark streak and delusional fantasies of adoring women at his beck and call.Band With Pictures

Dennis (Ryan McDonald) is a delusional loner with aggressive tendencies, very similar to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. He has a job at a warehouse and lives with his sister. His role expands on a character from an earlier short film by Dorsey. But this portrayal is never good or evil, and Black Conflux makes the daring artistic choice of leaving him as an ambiguous character.

Dennis’s aggressive tendencies are only, at first, suggested, most notably through imagined scenes where ghosts of women from his past return to torment him. Still, his very presence gives a sense of foreboding, threading a fine line between vulnerability and unprovoked rage. And when Dennis and Jackie eventually meet, what they say and do to each other is powerful. Sometimes just one conversation can change a life.

In one scene, Dennis is at home watching Brian Damude’s 1975 thriller Sudden Fury and getting off on its violence. Black Conflux takes part in exactly this tradition of Canadian tax-shelter era thrillers – cheaply made films from the seventies, produced to benefit from generous tax deductions, usually engaging with taboo themes. It would be in good company with Anne Wheeler’s 1986 film Loyalties and Lynne Stopkewich’s 2000 dark drama Suspicious River with their atmosphere of dread and depiction of rural life as a hot bed of sexual fantasies and violence. Another similar film is Joyce Chopra’s 1985 drama Smooth Talk, with which it shares the milieu of a small-town from an earlier time, and a mixture of childhood innocence and local criminality, and most notably hitchhiking as the way for teenagers to get around.

Since Black Conflux’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2019, it has gone on to make TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten Films and was nominated for the John Dunning Best First Feature Film Award at the Canadian Screen Awards. But, due to the pandemic, it is only now getting a virtual release. Since then, Dorsey has gone on to direct the CBC Gem horror miniseries Something Undone and has a big-budget science-fiction film, Balestra, in pre-production. The emergence of this great new Canadian director is very exciting. It is rare for a first feature to be so well directed, thoughtful and entertaining.

Black Conflux is available to rent on digital TIFF Lightbox starting July 2

Special to The Globe and Mail

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.

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