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Film Reviews Review: Don McKellar’s Through Black Spruce proves as problematic as the Joseph Boyden novel it’s adapting

Through Black Spruce focuses on the intertwined stories of Will (Brandon Oakes, left) and his neice, Annie (Tanaya Beatty, right).

Serendipity Point Films

  • Through Black Spruce
  • Directed by: Don McKellar
  • Written by: Barbara Samuels
  • Starring: Tanaya Beatty, Brandon Oakes and Tina Keeper
  • Classification: 14A
  • 111 minutes

rating

Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce was never going to be an easy novel to adapt – even before debates surrounding Boyden’s Indigenous identity cropped up in 2016.

To tell the novel’s two intertwined stories – one focusing on Will (Brandon Oakes), an alcoholic Moosonee bush pilot who’s run afoul of drug-runners, the other on Will’s niece Annie (Tanaya Beatty), who’s searching for her missing sister in Toronto – requires an assured directorial sensibility and a sincere understanding of Indigenous history and trauma. Canadian director Don McKellar (Last Night, The Grand Seduction) lends highly experienced hands to the effort, but watching Will and Annie’s stories unfold in awkward chunks, and with their identities eternally out of the filmmaker’s psychological grasp whether he likes to acknowledge that truth or not, you cannot help but wonder how the project might have been otherwise steered.

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This hypothetical may seem like an obvious, easy attempt at dismissing Through Black Spruce. An Indigenous story packaged for easy consumption by not one but now two non-Indigenous storytellers? It is a bad joke that has been told too many times. But if Through Black Spruce, in all its iterations, wants its audiences to think about Canada’s ugly history, then it should be prepared to interrogate its own genesis as well.

Annie's story focuses on the young Cree woman's mission to find her sister after she goes missing in Toronto.

Serendipity Point Films

So: Cree producer and co-star Tina Keeper should indeed be commended for pushing the project forward for the past half-decade, for committing to telling stories “from my region, a story of women in my family,” as she told me this past summer. Just as Beatty and Oakes should be praised for wringing genuine emotion from a dramatically flat screenplay, one that shows little interest in character development and too large a fixation on narrative convenience. Oakes, a seasoned character actor who seems to be relishing his screen time here, especially seems to be operating as if he was in another, more thoughtfully constructed film. The few scenes where he is simply left alone in the Northern Ontario wilderness to contemplate his sins and their consequences linger longer than even Boyden’s original, now problematic prose.

But there is purpose in asking why it is through McKellar’s eyes that we’re seeing this vision of missing Indigenous women, of addiction-ravaged families, of impoverished communities. The director himself reminds viewers of this question, popping up briefly as a Toronto arts journalist who serves as an elbow to the audience’s ribs. Self-awareness only briefly intersects with sincerity, though, and the film consistently feels like it’s dodging questions it purports to be asking of others. Through Black Spruce is torn between good intentions and thoughtlessness.

Through Black Spruce opens March 29.

Amid heritage controversy, publishing heavyweights stand by Joseph Boyden

Opinion: Why the facts behind Joseph Boyden’s fiction matter

The making of Joseph Boyden: Indigenous identity and a complicated history

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